Friday, March 28, 2014

The death of a tree

I live in a house with a bamboo clump. The clump is rather large, with strong yellow stems that reach out high. Those who have stayed close to the bamboo, will know that they seem to carry innumerable secrets. Strange actually, because the stems are not bound together, the leaves small, you might actually think that no bird could make its nest there. But then the bamboo surprises you, not because birds actually do build their nests in them, but because of the language the bamboo speaks. It is hushed, like a soft secret, that only you were meant to know. Many are the nights I have spent listening to the yellow bamboo speak to me. Like when they thought the Geisha from the neighbour's curtains actually step out and walk around, like when the neighbourhood child with asthma cries in her sleep, the bamboo knows it all. For someone like me who has been cradled in the shade of two Thuja trees, for all of her childhood, plants and their love is permanent. 

So with great trepidation I notice one morning, like the sudden arrival of rain, insects. Millions of them, take over my bamboo. The bamboo resists them, as do I. We fight our own battles, in different ways. For the first time, I see the strength of the hushed bamboo. It grows wild and almost in every direction, spreads roots like fire trying to out grow beyond the inevitable oncoming of the thousands more. I'm reminded of the carnivorous plant in Satyajit Ray's story, the tree that makes a racket, has a temper of its own and is fierce. But the insects are persistent, they grow in numbers, you kill some thousands, the next day a thousand more occupy their place, quiet, resilient and seemingly perennial in their attack. Yesterday I burnt my bamboo tree. Raised it from the ground and burnt it. It is like amputating your own feet, not letting the gangrene take over. There is not an insect left, I have rid the tree of them finally and the pain that they brought to it.

All night their absent hush disturbed me, I wondered if the ghost of the bamboo had returned. I had burnt a bit of myself with the bamboo too. But nature is like a miracle, there is sudden rain at night and in the morning from some unseen corner a small surviving bamboo shoot shows its head. Happiness is sometimes in a single green leaf.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Amongst the many pictures that you are confronted with, while you search the World Wide Web for ‘Banaphool’, I am stuck with one. A seemingly fat man, he wears a poite (the sacred thread) and appears to be writing in a preoccupied manner. The photograph is turned at a weird angle and I am loathe to turn it straight. For a man who has written some 586 short stories (and more), all of which are poised at different angles and often end in the unexpected, looking at him from a regular perception would perhaps rob him of the unexpected.

A prolific writer, Banaphool clubbed a career in medicine with that of writing and came up with novels like Trinokhondo, Boitorini Tire, Niranjana, Bhuban Som, Maharani, Agnishwar and short story collections like Bonofuler Golpo, Bonofuler Aro Golpo, Bahullo, Bindu Bishorgo, Adrisholok, Anugamini amongst others. The experience of reading Banaphool sometimes feels like being in a crowded coffee shop, finding a portly bald man next to you and looking away with not much expectancy without realizing that you are being observed with the most acute of lenses, stories about you and around you being filed away in some unseen storage space from where it shall later emerge in the shape of a miraculous tale, and in that his craft is almost magical.

The hallmark of good story telling is perhaps blending in so well with the story that one cannot find the writer in it, in the case of Banaphool we see this and yet each character speaks for him and through him too. That is the reality that each reader of Banaphool, is confronted with. The easy simplicity, with which he weaves the most casual stories into something overwhelming, is nothing short of being brilliant. It is also the reason, why this writer has a special place in Bengali literature and amongst readers worldwide. Perhaps the most remarkable hallmark of his writing is that it is prevalent in all times and uniquely he can be read in any mood and at any time. The casual style of writing and the easy language notwithstanding, he takes along the reader in an unassuming ride often.

But reading Banaphool is not as easy as it would appear to a casual reader. At a glance, he could be in your face and even forgotten, if the sub text is not understood. This mostly because if there is one constant in all of his work, especially the short stories, it is the sub text. You take the example of his story titled, The eyes where the protagonist meets his lady love after many years, now as a married woman. He is however shocked to find that she is blind, more so because he had always loved her eyes. Rumor has it that she had lost her eyes rather carelessly by applying some medicine instead of rose water. He meets her privately and says, ‘such beautiful eyes lost to carelessness’ and she replies, ‘If you don’t know why they were lost, its best you don’t.’

The gamut that is Banaphool is huge, one has the impression of a man observing society around him minutely and in microscopic detail and presenting them with such casual finesse that the reader doesn't realize it till he has read it once, stood aback not realizing what hit him and then comes  back curious, to read it again.

I read and re-read many of Banaphool’s stories and many a time there is something that I might have almost missed, if I hadn't been careful. There are abrupt beginnings and even more abrupt endings, so much so that one grapples with the fact that the story has actually ended without a further conclusion. But Banaphool’s stories often don’t have a single conclusion, in that they are often open ended and open to interpretation provided one has the curiosity to go back and check, the artistic ability to comprehend and the curiosity, to not discard it as a simple story.

To those who believe in the adage that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, there could be no better example than Banaphool to illustrate the point. Though he sets his stories in the socio-economical milieu of his times, his stories are as contemporary as that of many other’s and perhaps as important today as they were in his own times. He writes on the deeper aspects of society, of the human race and much more in a style that is often laced with humor and even sarcasm. You might find him asking questions, even to the reader, so that they are compelled to answer.

If stories like Tilottoma or Second to None deal with issues like men re-marrying at the drop of a hat, there are others like the story of Punti, who cannot find a decent husband since she is dark. He uses humour to plot the return of Punti with an eligible and hired husband in tow, who fools the village and yet somehow the writer manages to show her sense of anger and helplessness at society, even while the readers laugh at the trick.

In many ways Banaphool often draws our attention to the beauty of the small things of life, simple emotions, hard realities and simple poetry that is life. The story of Amla is that of a girl who has been ‘seen’ by several prospective grooms. In every case the dreamy Amla imagines happiness with the prospective groom but in most cases either the ‘price’ does not match or the bride doesn’t measure up to the groom’s expectations. ‘Finally the bride was approved, the price was right, the wedding took place. The groom’s name was Bishsheshwar. Fat, dark, rotund- a graduate and an employee in a merchant firm. When they set eyes on each other during the wedding, Amala’s breast was suffused with such tenderness! She was charmed by her quiet, well mannered, uncomplicated husband. Amala is happy.’

Often one notices fun and dark humour layered with deeper and more philosophical ideas which go a long way in enriching these stories. One is compelled to think, to speculate and return richer having been bathed in a quiet philosophy that is subtle and well placed. In The Tailor, a customer offers a substantial amount of money to a rather busy tailor to make flags that would greet Gandhi while he passes through their town’s railway station, two years have passed since that time, the same man again offers the same busy tailor extra money, only this time the flags are black. Gandhi is dead.

Reading Banaphool’s stories is like taking a walk with the writer. I've often wondered how interesting it would be to walk with such a man, who would find stories in the most mundane and draw your attention to the smallest detail, point out the sad hidden over time, make us revel in the small joys of life and observe the little nooks where his stories lived.

With Banaphool one lives anew, he teaches us that the most wonderful stories can be told in the simplest of languages and in the simplest of ways, provided we know how to appreciate them. His sudden twists and unexpectedness have earned him comparisons with O’Henry and yet his place in the history of short stories, remain unique. For a man who had written an amused poem on Rabindranath and yet drawn inspiration from him, Banaphool is one writer every reader must discover anew, for in reading him one is filled wonder and the feeling of, why didn't I think of this.

*Excerpts of stories quoted are from, ‘What Really Happened’ 

( This was written for and published in 'The Bangalore Review')

Friday, March 7, 2014

'Chaina'- The story of an unwanted woman

(Sometime around early 2000 s, Salt lake Kolkata)

I was going through a phase where, I was doing some serious reading on the Bauls and Bishnu Prasad Rabha, wondering why songs as simple had no effect on the populace, especially when it came to understanding issues related to women and rejecting of caste. the songs of Bishnu Prasad Rabha had always spoken of caste reforms, uplift-ment of women, while the Bauls spoke of free spirited-ness, love towards all, amidst other such things.

We had a new house maid, in those days. A rather elderly lady, with whom I barely had any interaction, apart from the rather cryptic day to day instructions on what needed to be done. 'China mashi' as she was called, was a cheerful matronly figure, who would bug me into cooking and becoming more 'songshari'. 

Though, I had been a bit startled at hearing her name, it never occurred to me why someone was called after a country and like most others I had assumed that her parents were folks deeply deprived of imagination, especially when it came to names. 

For most abstract people, the light of dawn is not only sudden but that which often results in a whole set of new discoveries. It was perhaps the terrific heat of an afternoon and idle speculation that led me to ask her one day why her parents had named her 'China', did her ancestors have any connections with the country?

I still remember her face, bent while cutting the vegetables as she replied, 'amar jonmer shomoy Baba Ma bolechilo, arekta meye chai na. Tar thekei amar nam Chaina hoye geche' ( When I was born, my parents said they did not want another girl, thus I was named 'Chai-na', which in Bangla loosely means, don't want or not wanted).

All my reading had not prepared me for that face. Stoic. Resilient. Woman

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

2008, National Library and a Gost

It was around 2008, a sultry afternoon in the National Library, Kolkata.

Like many other people who have frequented the National Library, I had also heard stories about Warren Hasting's spirit roaming around the rather solemn building, that housed the library premises. It is rumoured that Hasting's spirit roams around the library looking for a black book that could save him from impeachment. It was a sleepy hot afternoon and I was searching for an old magazine, as a part of the research for my book on Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. The National Library being a store house of many such old magazines, I had spent a good part of the day already looking up some of the very old Bengali magazines from the 40's and 50's. there was a stealth to the air, some old fans stirred, pages creaked in some corner of vague rooms, faint footsteps in another random corner..

I was reminded of Ruskin Bond, a documenter and creator of some ghosts. Mr. Bond who has extensively written on ghosts once said that a young 10 year old reader had found his ghosts not too scary and had accordingly asked him,  ‘Can you make them frightful?’

By this time I was desperate to find a particular article about Suchitra Sen. Like anyone who has written biographies will tell you, at a particular point one starts almost reliving the life of the personality one writes on, and sometimes becomes almost a part of their spirit. There were evenings when I had walked on Ballygunge Circular Road and wondered if a particular lady with her head in a scarf was Suchitra Sen.

A copy of 'Prasad', suddenly fell down as I jerked open one of the rusting old drawers. On the open page, a stunning photograph of the lady. I could almost hear a certain Hastings chuckle.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Revisiting 'Opur Sansar'

Nine years is a long time
some would say a life time
and yet Sharmila hasn’t aged.
those about to smile eyes,
the strand of hair misplaced
a sidurer tip, so cozy.

My daughter rides her cycle
her new bell rings out loud,
louder than Apu’s train in fact
it hides the sudden tears
of a happy copulated screen,
suddenly gone Kafkaesque.
In the distance are scraps of little dreams
floating in 
from another’s novel-
destroyed, stamped over
adrift, on a strange hillock.

Apu resides there,
I'm told
alone, voiceless, mindless.
I stare at my walls-
in the yellow of an evening light,
a pig is dead.
I put on a switch
Kajal lit eyes screech in happiness.

I have always hated the word ‘sansar’,
did Apu smile at last?
I look twice, touch him on the screen
and smile back.

( Written on watching Ray's 'Apur Sansar' after nine years again last week)

© 2013 Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Prosaic love

The writers for me have always been those who have crept into the shadows, worn Red shades in the Yellow lights, written absurd lines, made a mess of every book they signed, sung an off beat song and made prosaic love.

( Image from the Internet)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Gathering Stillness

If someone asked me what I have in abundance, I'd say stillness. And yet that is the single emotion( if it can be called that) which scares me. I seem to have some special ability to meet some of the most still people that nature could have produced. Extremely interesting people, in their own ways, endowed with the enduring capacity to be still. 

During my college days, I would often travel from college to home in night buses, during holidays. During one of these journeys I once met a man who sat next to me and talked nineteen to dozen, shared silly jokes, trying to make me laugh, related anecdotes, for most of the journey while I hmm d and nodded in my limited conversation and listened mostly to what he might be actually trying to convey. At the end of sometime, he turned towards me and said, 'Talk, I'm scared of silences' Over the years we kept in touch, we wrote to each other, became fast friends. But as time went by I discovered that there began to be more of shared silences than shared conversation. My last communication with him was about 2 years back, when I had asked him how things were and he had replied, 'Sitting in my office making faces at the walls.' I hear from common friends that he has not spoken in a long time, to no one.

Sometime back, I met a fellow writer over a social networking site. We would sporadically exchange notes on what we wrote, talk of absurd things that had no connection with each other, forming a strange but happy bond. One fine day, he disappeared. Ultimately people disappear is what I have come to understand, whether you like it or not they do, perhaps because they want to or because they have become like blank pages with nothing written on it, not even the wish to write. Out of the blue, I receive a mail, I'm well and writing a book about trees that speak to each other. I write a long mail back.

A few evenings back I walked on a road and I saw stillness again. An old woman, she sat on the pavement. Still. Orange saree, a black petticoat, red bangles, silver anklets. I had almost walked past her when her face registered and I walked back to see her again. I've never seen clearer brown and more tired eyes, wondering if years of neglect and indifference had rendered them inscrutable like the Bangalore skyline,where everyday is a yesterday and a tomorrow. She looked like the high priestess of elegance somehow, lover of cigars, an imperfect life? She gave me the shivers, though I wanted to sit next to her and ask, 'how long before you're gone still too?'