A review of Naiyer Masud’s stories: the essence of camphor


I came to know about Naiyer Masud some months ago when I read about his sad demise in a few literary conscious online sites. Recently I started wondering about why our curiosity about a writer’s work suddenly escalates when he becomes out of reach. Articles with ten best stories and so forth popped out within days. I looked up about his writing online and read a few pages in the amazon preview and I was very impressed. It was an unpleasant surprise of discovery and joy. It was unpleasant because what I was looking for had been right there, the things I find absent in most of the great stuff had already been so nicely written by an Indian writer who had been alive all this while.

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I found his short story collection The Essence of Camphor in my local Sahitya Academy library which had come out in 1998 and immediately started with it. It contains nine short stories and one novella, all beautifully translated from the original Urdu. The first story, which is the title story is about the innocence of childhood and how a scent can be evocative, even if it is not a powerful one. The boy in this story tries to imitate a kafoori sparrow but couldn’t exactly imitate no matter how many times he try. During this he develops the art of making intricate objects from clay. His diligent effort reminds a neighbouring girl of her childhood and soon they became friends. But she was suffering from an ailment. Now here Masud tries to evoke the abstract by constantly reminding the reader that there is something special about the perfume made from camphor and that particular scent is the scent of death. He does it so confidently that even a cold, rainy afternoon and a dead bird can incite a strange forlornness in the reader. We sometimes feel something and try to link it to something entirely absurd. When an author identifies similar things and writes them down in a fictional form, the resulting work unsettles the reader. I felt vulnerable as if the author has touched something raw in me. I had a similar feeling when I read Clarice Lispector’s stories for the first time.

In ‘Interregnum’, which is one my favourite stories in the collection, a father-son relationship has been shown in ways I seldom see. Of course, there are books like “The Master of Petersburg” that can challenge the above statement, but there is something entirely different in this story. The motherless son is possessive about his father from a very early age. His father is a mason, he designs patterns and makes sculptures. The son would hide his tools every day and he has to beat him up to let him go to work. Thus their chemistry changes with time and nearly in the end, in one afternoon, the father met an accident. He was bedridden for weeks. And there is this passage:

“After he was seated, supported by several pillows, he became absorbed in thought. Never before had he seemed to me to be a thinking individual. But now, as he sat propped up against a pile of pillows, dressed in clean and proper clothes, he was in deep thought. And, for the first time I considered the possibility that he might be my real father.”

That passage hit me. I was in awe, to be honest.

‘Sheesha Ghat’ was another story that dwells on a similar theme.

Another story I really liked is called ‘Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire’. I read a preview of this story before in Amazon. And upon finishing the story, it turned out to be strangely dreamy. Throughout, his techniques have been similar. You always feel that the author is talking about something out of your reach or grasp. I remember V.S. Naipaul once advising young writers to not go for the abstract, and go for preciseness and clarity. I believe he meant to say only the skilled and the gifted people should try to handle the abstract ideas in their writings.

Not all his stories are like this. ‘The Myna from Peacock Garden’ is a simple tale of a father trying to fulfil the wish of his daughter. In all his stories, I found his prose to be clear and precise. Masud was a gifted writer and he writes about stuff no writes about. I hope his works get translated in more languages, especially now that he is no more.

 

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[Book Excerpt] Yudhisthira The Unfallen Pandava By Mallar Chatterjee


I am honored and happy to present an excerpt from the upcoming mythological fiction based on the Yudhisthira, the idol of truth, Yudhisthira The Unfallen Pandava By Mallar Chatterjee . The other day, in an online  discussion session hosted by Readomania, I saw Mallar talk about why mythological fiction is a hit among Indian readers, and I perfectly agree with him. From what I gathered listening to his views and his ideas, the book would be different than other similar books. I am much intrigued about the story after going over the blurb(presented below).

I have enjoyed many books published by Readomania, a house continuously working to bring out new, quality fiction to the Indian market. In fact, three of my short stories have been published by Readomania, for which maybe I am a bit inclined to Readomania and  the people working behind it. Although my overall views are not biased by that.

 

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The cover

So, without delaying anymore, here is the blurb,

Though the Kuru family survived on Vyasadeva’s seeds, he never belonged to the house. Moreover, being an ascetic, he was even exempted from obligations of the complicated dynamics of human relationships. This armed him with a ruthless dispassion and he could go on telling his stories with stoical detachment, free from any bias and uncontaminated by quintessential human dilemmas.

But had any of his characters given his own account of the story, would not that have lent a different dimension to the events seducing ordinary mortals like us to identify, if not compare, our private crises with those of our much celebrated heroes?

The Unfallen Pandava is an imaginary autobiography of Yudhisthira, attempting to follow the well-known story of the Mahabharata through his eyes. In the process of narrating the story, he examines his extremely complicated marriage and relationship with brothers turned co-husbands, tries to understand the mysterious personality of his mother in a slightly mother-fixated way, conducts manic and depressive evaluation of his own self and reveals his secret darkness and philosophical confusions with an innate urge to submit to a supreme soul. His own story lacks the material of an epic, rather it becomes like confession of a partisan who, prevailing over other more swashbuckling characters, finally discovers his latent greatness and establishes himself as the symbolic protagonist.

Quite exciting, I’d say.  The sheer volume of Mahabharata intimidates me to take it up, but I enjoy whenever I get to read books adopted and interpreted from the main text. I am sure many new aspects will come out about the eldest pandava after reading this. Here is an excerpt which the author and the publisher have allowed to showcase in my blog for which I am heartily thankful.

The excerpt:

‘Stop, son. Another one is left!’

Kunti was weeping fitfully when she said that to me.

Kurukshetra had become quiet. The fury, the hatred, the greed, the bitterness—all were things of the past. The earth was still wet with blood. The air was too laden with grief to breathe in. It was the time for tears—only tears. The endless expanse that ran into the horizon was filled with pyres—some still burning, some emitting blackish smokes. The war-torn world assumed the look of a busy crematorium.

I had just completed the last rites of all our relatives killed in the war. Completing the rituals, I was about to return when I heard Kunti say so. I was surprised, not because another one was still left, but because of my mother’s sudden breakdown. It appeared little weird to me, for she had all along been an epitome of composure even when she was being made to witness her grandchildren burn to ashes. What caused her this sudden seizure?

‘Who is it, Mother? I am sorry if I have missed anyone. Tell me.’

‘It is. . . he is. . . .’

‘Tell me, Mother, I am waiting.’

‘Karna it is!’

‘Sorry?’ I could not help asking though Kunti had uttered the name quite clearly and audibly, in spite of her snuffles.

‘You heard me, son,’ Mother sounded steely, for once.

‘But why on earth should I do his rites?’ I felt my lips twitch. Astonishment was just beginning to grip me.

‘He was. . .he was my firstborn. He—was—your—elder—brother!’ Mother’s words seemed to have flown in from another universe and hung in the air all around me.

‘Mother, do you realise what you are saying?’ I still don’t know how I managed to frame the question properly. Perhaps it had not yet sunk in fully.

‘He was Lord Surya’s gift to me. . .I was not married then. . .I had to leave him because. . .you can understand. . . .’

‘And you decided to keep it a secret!’ My voice now started faltering.

‘I have sinned son. . . I. . . just could not. . . .’ Kunti once again burst into tears. She was saying something more but that did not enter my ears. I still remember that a completely unfamiliar, beastly sound squeezed out of my throat. The strange sound was getting louder and ghastlier. My knees went numb and started to bend as if unable

to carry my weight any further. I knelt down, then fell prostrate on the ground and tried to clutch the much afflicted surface of the earth. I also remember that I was writhing hysterically before a palpable darkness descended all around me though it was only noontime.

‘You women will never ever be able to keep any secret. . . I curse you all. . . I curse. . .’ that was what I could shoot out before losing consciousness.

That was the second wound Kunti inflicted on me. First, she had pushed me into a wrong marriage. Then, she made us kill our own brother. What more damage could even Duryodhana and Shakuni have done to me?

Mother, why on earth did you have to conceal the real identity of Karna? Why could you not have done anything to prevent this bloodshed? Was it not an intolerable irony that while you could become a genuine mother to your stepsons, you failed to become one to your own firstborn?

But she was to pack another blow. She was readying herself for something beyond our wildest imagination. In the fifteenth year after the war, when Dhritarashtra and Gandhari decided to spend the rest of their lives in the quietness of a forest, Kunti chose to be with them—leaving us behind. Imagine! When her sons were trying overtime to recreate a nest of peace and happiness for her; the old lady, with a bent back and staggering knees, limped out of the world of materiality to accompany the parents of Duryodhana and Duhshasana!

I understood it was your atonement. But how could you have deprived us of your priceless company just when we started to see that much -awaited face of happiness after years of despair?

As destiny would have it, Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti got killed in a devastating wildfire during their stay in a jungle far from Hastinapura.

My mother was burning to death helplessly while we were spending the day in royal comfort far away, completely unaware of the disaster. We would later identify some charred bones as hers by a silver armlet with Pandu’s name inscribed on it found

under the remains. That happened to be the only ornament she had taken with her to the forest.

She did not even allow me to drape her dead body in royal robes, light her funeral pyre as the surviving eldest son and perform her last rites. For what fault of mine did you punish me so mercilessly, Mother?

I know I shall meet you again on the other side of the great divide, Mother. Please be ready to face my questions.

Mother, you don’t know how deeply I love you. Perhaps that’s why it is so difficult for me to forgive you, Mother. I am still on a mission to reach that day of my life when I will successfully bring myself to pardon you.

I can’t wait to read the full book. You can order it now @ Amazon.

About the Author:

Born in a suburban town in North 24 Parganas in West Bengal, in a family of academicians, Mallar Chatterjee’s childhood flame was mythology, especially the Mahabharat. The Unfallen Pandava is his debut novel. Mallar is a central government employee, presently posted in Delhi.

Yudhisthira – The Unfallen Pandava is available online at Amazon.

 

I congratulate Mallar for writing this book and I hope this book will gain many successes which it fully deserves.

On not being able to love- a review of Nabarun Bhattacharya’s “Auto”


Auto was first published, in Bengali, in the 2003 annual issue of “Aajkal” . Then in 2007, it was published as a book along with another novella called Bhogi.

Auto is a story of an auto-driver who wanted to be a footballer. He liked to play in the striker but at times, whenever required he came up and defended his team. His father died suddenly and he had to look for jobs – football could not feed him. First he did stray jobs like working in a garage, driving rickshaw-van, carrying sand sacks. But later he engaged in driving business; the owner of the auto really loved him. Things were looking up for him but his mother too died untimely. Throughout the novella, the protagonist, that is, Chandan kept talking about his mother, accusing her of leaving him so early in his life to struggle in this cruel world, accusing himself that he should have taken more care of her.

But this is not a novella about nostalgic remembrance of the past, rather the immediate cruelty of the present. In the underbelly of Kolkata, the illegal business of country liquor is rather murky. In this business, we meet people who were always scared because no one knew when someone would be miffed and someone would die. While the writer creates these stereotyped images of the dark side of the city, the central event of the story is quite the opposite. A few robbers had attempted to rob a jewellery shop but couldn’t escape after the robbery. The crowd caught and started beating them up. After one point, they die of the beating and yet they kept beating. One of them, who might be working in some garage and missed all the fun, had just joined. He picked an iron rod and brought it down, full force, in between the legs of one of the…

Chandan witnessed all these and fell down on the street.  After that incident he became impotent in the bed. His wife, whom he loved the most after the death of his mother, left him and eloped with a young boy. While such an incident certainly evokes pity in the reader, the bigger picture evokes fear. The impatience, the rage that people of this time are harbouring can cripple a society. And this general theme always flows inside this obviously one-man story.

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What was more shocking is the final act of cruelty of the protagonist that not only saved him from continuous humiliation but also pushed him to a life of a bottomless void.

In the introduction of the novel, Bhattacharya said,

“Knowing the trap of death is inevitable in this life, humans come to this living world and survive by enlisting their names in the tragedy of killing and getting killed. This is happening because some wishes never get fulfilled. And it worries me all the time. He knows that he is not getting freedom in any way. But he is reluctant to accept this.”

In an interview, Bhattacharya once said he had become a writer because he couldn’t become a footballer. Somewhere in the frustration of Chandan’s not being able to be a footballer, we see glimpses of him too. This novella is essentially a personal cry to find the voice of the modern time. And it has successfully achieved so.

Of all the novels of Nabarun Bhattacharya, this novella will come third in my list of favourites by him after Herbart and Toy City.   

The story behind Cantilevered Tales (guest post)


I am happy and honored to host this guest post from the widely acclaimed actor, director and writer Jayant Kripalini. So here it goes:


Why did I start writing this set of short stories that became one long story? I don’t really know.

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I was on way my back from somewhere by train and at Howrah Station a group of taxi drivers tried to extort a higher fare from me.  This was before the time of pre paid taxi booths.  Rather than shell out five times the fare I thought I’d take a bus. It was peak hour in the morning and though I did get a seat since the bus started from there, I hadn’t calculated the length of time I’d be sitting in the bus on the bridge. Forty five minutes of inching along later I heard a voice behind me say, “AitakiHaora Bridge naLaora Bridge?”

I knew exactly what he meant.

I knew then that I had the beginning of a story.

“Where are you getting off?” I turned around and asked.

“High Court,” he replied.

By now we had reached the East end of the bridge. It still looked like we’d be on the bus for another 45 minutes.

“Walk?” I asked him.

“Let’s,” he said.

And that as they say was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

His name was Khokon. He lived in Santragachhi. And because of that immortal first line, I called the protagonist of my story Khokon. In the book though, the line belongs to his colleague Ashutosh.

Some time later, I overheard a group of people talking about saving a water body from some unscrupulous builder.ArunLal the cricket player might have been a part of the group but I’m not sure.  I started keeping tabs on them. Not because I was interested in saving the environment or even that small little lake.

I am not a crusader.

I hate getting involved with issues.

But if you live in Calcutta, even for a short while, trust me, you’ll get involved.

More power to the builder I thought after I first saw the lake if you can call brackish acres of sludge a lake.

What did interest me were the disparate lot of people, and some desperate ones among them, who were determined they were going to save a stagnant water body from becoming an office complex.Frankly in my opinion that lake had outlived its usefulness to be anything at all.

I didn’t give a damn what happened to the lake.

But over a period of time I did start worrying about the people. And of course fell hopelessly in love with them. Their wellbeing and their good health became a matter of great concern to me especially since I saw the array of ‘villains’ lined up against them.

So rather than concentrate on Builder v Helpless Citizen – enough stories had been written about them, I concentrated on their stories and their histories.

This is their story or should I say these are their stories.  Some of the people are real; some of the people who come to their assistance are thinly disguised caricatures of people I admire; some are just people I met on buses and trams in my journeys across the bridge who wormed their way into the book.

And that is how this book got wrote.

Jayant Kripalani

Book Blurb

CANTILEVERED TALES IS A STORY ABOUT PEOPLE, THEIR QUIRKS AND WHY THEY BECOME WHO THEY BECOME. AND LOTS OF LAUGHTER!

I overheard a group of people talking about saving a water body from some unscrupulous builder and started keeping tabs on them. Not because I was interested in saving the environment or even that small little lake. What did interest me were the disparate lot of people, and some desperate ones among them, who were determined that they were going to save a stagnant water body, which in my opinion had outlived its usefulness as anything at all, from becoming an office complex.

This is NOT a Builder v Helpless citizen epic. In fact that is the least important part of the book. This is about a group of inept people who you want to reach out and protect but you discover are more than capable of taking care of not just themselves, but of you too.

Author Bio

Jayant Kripalani is an Indian film, television and stage actor, writer and director. Known for his work in TV series like Khandaan, Mr Ya Mrs and Ji Mantriji, he graduated from Jadavpur University with a degree in English Literature.

Jayant Kripalani

He has played character roles in movies like Heat and Dust, Rockford, Jaane Tu. . .Ya Jaane Na, 3 Idiots and, most recently, Hawaizaade and The Hunger. He has directed and produced a number of films and is actively involved with theatre. He wrote the screenplay for ShyamBenegal’s film Well Done Abba. He is the author of the heartwarming and nostalgic New Market Tales, set in the historic New Market area of Kolkata in the 1960s and 1970s. His recent foray into writing performance poetry has brought him acclaim in poetic circles around the country. When he is not in Calcutta, he is either fishing in Himachal, pfaffing in Bombay or being a beach bum in Goa.

The Dogs Declared War


There is no place for street dogs in a modern city. One must collect them and systematically eliminate them without hurting public sentiments. One may propose methods used in the holocaust, or simple poisoning in the night. But then, what happens when the dogs, utterly desperate, choose to leave the city on their own accord? This short wonder of a novella is far superior and more mature than Nabarun’s more popular works (like Kangal Malsat) in terms of subtlety and depiction of human brutality.

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Cover of the First Edition

It questions the much promoted slogan ‘Safe drive. Save life.’ Whose life to be exact? The crows, the dogs and cats — are they ever a part of the design of the human society? Once the author said in an interview, ‘Like I have the right to live in the city, a mosquito also has a right to bite me.’ From this non-anthropological view, the story forms its basic outline. Some critics compare the dogs with Naxalites whom the state chased and picked up like dogs and killed brutally. But I think, the idea is broader and scarier when applied to the helpless classes of the society.

Lubdhak is the Bengali name of the constellation Canis Major or The Greater Dog. In the novella, it acts as a compass for the helpless dogs. They had to leave the city. Lyka and other famous characters also appear as shadowy ghosts. They talk, they show ways, they predict that an asteroid is en route to destroy the city Kolkata like many such events in the past. That’s why the dogs must leave.

The sarcastic narrative, at times, accompanied by short poems, often goes quite experimental presenting a chapter in form of a bullet points and counterpoints. Sometimes, the narrative shifts from the third person to first person narratives of the animals. The continuously shifting voices give the novella a sense of urgency, a collective cry.

Like Khelna Nagar (Toy City), this one also is a dystopian work and can be termed as one of the major literary achievement in Bengali literature.

Before the Hanging


In continuation of the series “To Talk About Bangla Books”, this is the second one.

Jagari (The Vigil) by Satinath Bhaduri

Today, I shall talk about a book that has introduced me to modernist Bangla novels. First published in 1946, it’s a commendable effort from the writer to write a difficult novel, such as this, in breathless stream of consciousness narrative.

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The complete book is divided into four parts and spans only a few hours. The family (father, mother and two brothers, Nilu and Bilu) was engaged in Indian politics with the Congress National Party i.e. Gandhiji’s Quit India Movement. For this reason Bilu and his parents were arrested. Bilu was sentenced to death for sabotaging government assets. Nilu became the witness against his elder brother, thus betraying his family, solely for his own political ideals.

Hence just few hours before the hanging, each character’s thought process is depicted with scientific precession  and thus we have four chapters for four characters.

Name of the chapters:
1. Cell for Death-sentenced- Bilu.
2. First Division Cell- Father
3. Women’s Cell- Mother
4. Jail Gate- Nilu

The fractured narrative, trailing off to old memories and coming back to current state several times within even a small paragraph has reminded me of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. But, I don’t want to compare the quality or techniques of these two books, for both are different and have their unique essences (Actually, I have found this one a lot more enjoyable and relatable, perhaps because it is written in my mother tongue).

Lastly, I want to say this that internal monologue in Bengali seemed natural to me than in English and without this book, I would never have known that Bengali, at times can sound so sweet and ear-pleasing upon employing stream of consciousness narrative.

To give you a small glimpse of the narrative, I am translating a part from chapter 3.

Everyone is sitting around me silently in the dark ─now if even a needle drops, the sound can be heard. Only the hand-fan is making a continuous humming… A beetle is flying. Sounding whirr, whirr…! It drops down with a ‘thak’. It rises again, flies, again bangs onto something and drops. Haven’t flown till now, not yet; still not yet. Now when it’ll fly, I’ll count one, two, three till ten. If it drops down before I reach ten, every way of saving Bilu will become impossible. And if I can complete my count before the insect drops, then I am sure, God will somehow save my Bilu. Have to count quickly; as quickly as possible for me. It flies now ─one, two, three, four, five, six, seven─ damn! It has dropped down. What have you done, O Almighty!

How Ungreen Had My Valley Become!


This is the first installment of my newly-thought-up series called “To Talk About Bangla Books.” Given the fact that Bangla has this huge collection of good literary stuff and I thought why not talk about them in my blog and they just might pique interests of readers and more fortunately, translators!

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The Tale of the Hasuli Turn by Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay

This is the first novel by Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay I read. Set in 1941, the novel explores the sub-tale (upokatha in Bengali. Interesting to note that the author chooses to call this a sub-tale and not a tale/story, in tandem with the civilized world’s disinterest with the “other world”). The story starts with the villagers’ or residents’ worry about a strange particularly loud whistling in the forest every night. Some thought it must be the restless spirit of “Babathakur” (Godfather) who died years ago before setting the place for Kahars (those people were ‘classified’ as Kahar) to live. They were really scared and thinking up ways of sacrifices and worships to please him. Their leader Banowari was in support of this. Things got complicated when Karali, the youth with modern outlook discovered that it was a king cobra and killed it. Later all other condemned him of this sinister act because that snake was Babthakur’s ride (bahan). Say it because of superstition or tradition, but from then on there was continuous tussle between the new and the old, between faith and logic, between unquestioned submission to the known process and the finding out new dangerous ways. And this has set the core tumult in the novel.

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Backcover. Source: Amazon.in

A constant politics is being played at every conversation, at every action, and how natural and fundamental they are in the core rural life where a person’s very existence depends on small decisions he takes in his daily life, can be easily felt in the author’s expert observations and insightful depiction of human mind. The relationship equations of friendships and love are more fundamental to human nature in here and above the normal sense applied to the civilized world.

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Original Bangla Edition

The language is diversely rich with regional variations of Bangla, and most of the times, the narrative is closely linked with the dialogues and thoughts of the characters. It has been repeatedly emphasized in the novel that the war and hunger of outside world will never affect the reclusive bank of Kopai river (shaped like a scythe, hasuli in Bangla. Pretty much reminded me of Marquez’s Macondo). When at the end, during WW2, the sinister military planes flew over their sky and devoured all the trees in which they slowly had constructed their interdependent habitat, when all his (Banowari’s) people betrayed him by leaving their farmlands and joining the factory, one can see how the outside can affect (or ruin) an almost hidden patch of the forest-land in rural Bengal. The influence of the outsider (Karali, slowly became an outsider to the people) is one of the themes in the book. Coetzee’s works e.g. ‘Age of Iron’, ‘Disgrace’ explicitly deal with this theme. The comparision is far-fetched but worth mentioning.

I can safely conclude that this is a hugely original work and it takes some time to get over the dark, mysterious, mesmerizing world of the bend of Kopai river.

This has a translation available, published by Columbia University Press and can be found here .