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Nabendu Ghosh did not believe that evil is man’s natural state: Ratnottama Sengupta

The National award-winner speaks about her father, famed screenwriter Nabendu Ghosh, and why he wrote about courtesans and prostituted women in the collection of short stories titled Mistress of Melodies.

Sonal Pandya

A new translation of Nabendu Ghosh’s stories titled Mistress of Melodies: Stories of Courtesans and Prostitutes, published by Speaking Tree Books, brings forth the popular screenwriter's literary side, one that many were probably not aware of. The collection of six short stories showcases another perspective to those often labelled as ‘fallen’ women.

Ratnottama Sengupta, Ghosh’s daughter, has edited Mistress of Melodies and translated the book with Mitali Chakravarty and Padmaja Punde. Over e-mail, Sengupta shared her father’s writing journey, his motivations and legacy, and his influence over her own writing career. Excerpts:

You previously edited Nabendu Ghosh's stories with That Bird Called Happiness in 2018. What made you decide to translate your father, and what was it about the stories in Mistress of Melodies that appealed to you specifically?

When Nabendu Ghosh went to Bombay with Bimal Roy, he was already a ‘star’ in Bengali literature. Allow me to quote Soumitra Chatterjee — the thespian we lost so recently had [done his master's degree] in Bengali: “I had known about Nabendu Ghosh even before I took to studying Bengali literature, since Daak Diye Jaai / The Clarion Call was a sensation even when I was in school. His writing was not confined to urban setting and city life. He went to the villages and wrote about the man of the soil too. His characters were always flesh-and-blood humans.”

But the Partition of India had halved the market for books and films in Bengali, dimming the prospects of even established directors and writers who sought a new opening on the shores of the Arabian Sea. However, in Bombay, Nabendu Ghosh found that his kind of writing did not have as much of a prospect in films which were made primarily for the entertainment of an amorphous mass. So he decided to write scripts based on other people’s stories, and his own thought-provoking stories — which he described as ‘fingers pointing at what ails society’ — he continued to write as pure literature, in Bengali, and send to publishers in Kolkata.

This oeuvre bears the distinct stamp of his outlook towards life, society, or state. As a critic wrote, 'There is deep empathy for human emotions, layers of meaning that add to the depth of the spoken words, subtle symbolism, description of unbearable life paired with flight in the open sky of imagination.' But this aspect of the writer got buried under the glamour of screenwriting, and even in Bengal, people thought of him only as the screenwriter of successful films by directors like Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya, Vijay Bhatt, Sultan Ahmed, Dulal Guha, Lekh Tandon, Phani Majumdar, Satyen Bose, Sushil Majumdar....

Nabendu Ghosh was further saddened that even his colleagues in filmdom did not know his literary pouring as few were translated. This is what I have tried to rectify through Chuninda Kahaniyaan (2009), Me and I (2017) and That Bird Called Happiness (TBCH). Mistress of Melodies you could say is a part of a continuum that started with River of Flesh (2016) and comes after TBCH. Nabendu Ghosh would read up volumes — books, news items, dictionaries and encyclopaedia — when he fleshed out his characters. Perhaps that is why they play out their lives before you, like moving images. It was no different when he was writing Song of a Sarangi / Ekti Sarengir Sur, included in Chaand Dekhechhilo that won him the Bankim Puraskar.

Book excerpt: Nabendu Ghosh’s Mistress of Melodies – Stories of Courtesans and Prostitutes

That is when I was impressed by the range of characters he had created about women who were forced to be in the 'Oldest Profession'. So, when my friend Ruchira Gupta, founder chairperson of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, planned River of Flesh, I translated Market Price / Baajar Dar along with The Kept Wife / Baar Bodhu by Subodh Ghosh, author of Sujata.

The reading of an excerpt from Market Price by Aparna Sen launched River of Flesh in the Apeejay Litfest at Kolkata's Town Hall. It also led to me editing That Bird Called Happiness and flagged off Mistress of Melodies.

My involvement with the theme — rather, concern for these ladies — was ignited by an interaction with Bianca Jagger [former actress and now a prominent social and human righs advocate] when she had come to Delhi, and by danseuse Swapna Sundari's work on Devadasis. My association with Apne Aap Women Worldwide became a natural corollary.

How was the translation process like for you on this project? Were there any additional notes or insights that assisted you while translating?

Translation, I realized a long time ago, is a natural process for us in India. You see, I was born and brought up in Bombay where I simultaneously spoke, listened to, read, and studied Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and English. When my brother married Lesley, within the family we were constantly switching from English to Bengali and Bengali to English. When I lived in Delhi, or when I did my interviews with actors, dancers, artists, I was constantly conversing in Hindi and taking notes — longhand! — in English. When my son was growing up in Ajmer [in Rajasthan], in order to improve his Bengali I made him translate Me and I / Aami O Aami, which Nabendu Ghosh had dedicated to his two grandsons.

So translation comes naturally to me. But often, the layers beneath the events, the emotion underlying the sonority of a word, and the socio-political — rather, historical — context needs to be understood before one can translate a literary writer like Nabendu Ghosh. For, his major works rest on the reality of our national upheavals and even international outrages such as America’s nuclear testing in Papua New Guinea in the 1950s and 1960s. I’m talking of The Tale of Papui Island, which was translated by Aparajita Sinha (daughter of Bimal Roy), for TBCH. While editing it, I had to read up all the details I could lay my hands on.

Again, to translate Dregs, which is part of Mistress..., I needed to understand the history of tramcars in India. Although I have ridden them as a child, I had no idea that they were the oldest trams in Asia, founded in 1880. The Calcutta Tramways Company was registered in London; in Calcutta it was inaugurated by the viceroy, Lord Ripon; it went electric in 1902 and in 1943 it connected Howrah with Calcutta via the Howrah bridge. It was nationalized only in 1976 under the CT (Acquisition of Undertaking) ordinance.

But why did I need to understand all this? Because the tram is the alter ego of the story’s narrator, a tram conductor, and it is the mute observer of history as the nation goes through the tumultuous years between roughly 1940 and 1950. For some stories — in particular, those on the Direct Action Day riots of 1946 — I had to go to his autobiography, Eka Naukar Jatri / Journey of a Lonesome Boat.

Nabendu Ghosh

In the editor's notes, Mrinal Sen says of Ghosh that ‘he never believed evil is man’s natural state. Along with his characters he has confronted, fought and survived on hope.’ How is that thinking reflected in Mistress of Melodies?

Neither as screen playwright nor as a literary writer did Nabendu Ghosh believe that evil is man’s natural state. Along with him, the courtesans and prostituted women who people Mistress of Melodies confront the predicament they find themselves in. They fight to stave off adversity but do not give up hope. Hope of a better life. One where their love begets love. Where trust is not belied. Where hunger does not force them to sell their body along with their jewellery, their art, their soul....

You see, worldwide a ‘fallen woman’ is pictured as a siren who lures men into her den and then robs them of their wealth. Nabendu Ghosh shows that in reality, more often than not she falls in love with a man who ‘marries’ her, impregnates her, then dumps her, if not sell her to a brothel owner. True, some girls are in the profession because her mother is a tawaif [courtesan] or her father a low-born natua [performer]. Is the ‘husband’ or the father ever made to pay for this form of economic exploitation? Not that I know of.

Then again, if a man sells parts of his body to mitigate hunger, we feel pity for him. But if a woman sells her ‘virtue’, we feel disgust. She is deplored, derided, disparaged. It is a grave sin to trade your virtue. But, as Nabendu Ghosh drives home through these six stories, hunger compelled most housewives and maidens to sell their virtue. Especially in times of calamity, she is either feast for wild animals or fodder for lusty beasts. Fatima of Anchor must let the moneylender claw her breasts. Else, like with Amina, jackals will tear out her flesh....

The notes also reveal that Ghosh was looking at the title story, on Gauhar Jaan, to turn into a screenplay. Do you think it can be made today? If so, whom would you like to take it up?

Yes, Baba had written Swar Ki Rani / Mistress of Melodies as the first draft for a fuller screenplay that he always planned to write — in all probability, for my brother Subhankar Ghosh, a Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) graduate who directed the Doordarshan serial Yugantar (1995) and Woh Chhokri (1994) that won several National awards.

And yes, the loves and life of Gauhar Jaan (1873–1930) can be made for cine viewing even today, just as the story of Nati Binodini (1862–1941) can be filmed. Both these lives have provided content for successful stage productions. After reading Binodini’s autobiography Amal Allana directed “her best production to date (2006)” on the star of Bengali stage who started as a courtesan. At this moment her ‘hysteria’ is a spinoff of the very successful teleserial, Prathama Kadambini, on the first woman doctor. And Lillete Dubey has presented Gauhar in another landmark play.

These stories tell us of the struggle these ladies had to put up to transcend the narrow-minded thinking of the women and the convoluted thinking of the men of their times. A long way before a Kanan Devi (1916–1992) could transcend the stigma attached to an ‘actress’, Binodini had to sacrifice her body, her stardom, her health — all for the sake of theatre — and yet was duped, deprived of the laurels due to her! Similarly, and almost around the same time, Gauhar had the chutzpah to thumb her nose at the British — she would pay the ‘fine’ for driving down Red Road reserved for the rulers. Yet she was cheated out of her property by her own tabla player who got her to sign papers when she was inebriated, and compelled her to exhaust her wealth, lose her peace of mind, her love, her standing, everything, in court cases. Although she died as the court singer in Mysore, the last chapter of her life is one of emptiness: the woman with so many lovers did not have a man she could love, trust and die for! As Lillete once said, “Even today, women who have successful careers have difficult relationships...”.

When Baba was writing the first draft Preity Zinta was a leading star. And I for one found an uncanny resemblance between her and the photographs of Gauhar Jaan in the archives or at SRA. Today, of course, we would have to look for a different face. Or maybe two faces — as Shyam Benegal did in Sardari Begum (1996) and Lillete did in Gauhar — Rajeshwari Sachdeva as the young courtesan and Zila Khan as the ageing singer. Both were excellent choices, given their vocal accomplishment and histrionic ability. Ultimately casting depends on the director. If it is Srijit Mukherji of Bengal, he might go with Nusrat Jahan; if it were Muzaffar Ali, he might have gone with Deepika Padukone!

Many of your father's stories were turned into films. Is there another story that you would like to see adapted for the screen, or maybe for a mini-series?

I don’t know whether it was because his writing had this quality, or whether he acquired it because he was writing for films, everyone — from Gulzar saheb to his translators and his seasoned readers — has remarked about the graphic quality of his narration. If you listen to it being read, as we did when Sunit Tandon read The Fifth Raga at the launch of TBCH in Delhi, you can almost see the action unfolding before your eyes. So yes, there are many stories that can unfold on the screen.

In specific terms I would like to direct Fatima Ka Qissa / The Story of Fatima in TBCH — about a father, his daughter, and the importance of education for a girl. Then, Market Price is ideal for a short feature while The Fifth Raga and Possessed can be riveting feature films. Dregs can be a mini-series while Papui Island and Full Circle can be international productions.

Ashok Kumar and Nutan in Bandini (1963)

In his screenplays for Parineeta (1953), Biraj Bahu (1954), Aar-Paar (1954), Sujata (1959), Bandini (1963), Teesri Kasam (1966), Majhli Didi (1967) and Abhimaan (1973), Ghosh wrote distinctive female characters, some of whom are still cited as examples of remarkable heroines on the Hindi screen. To what would you attribute his keen observation of women?

The impromptu answer would be: to the strong personality who partnered him in life! And I am not being flippant: Kanaklata, my mother, was an architect of human lives — and when Nabendu Ghosh lost his jobs with the IG Police [office of the inspector general of police] and Military Accounts, both in Patna, between 1943 and 1945, for ‘subversive’ writing against the backdrop of the Quit India Movement, it was she who encouraged him to “go on writing, full time”! She had assuaged his fears by saying, “Not everyone in the world earns his livelihood by the grace of the British government.” And how old was she? Barely 18!

Revisiting Bandini: Bimal Roy's most complete film with Hindi cinema's first independent woman

To be truthful, his mother Suniti Bala, born sometime in 1890, was highly literate and, I suspect, she inculcated in Nabendu Ghosh the love of letters, as she did in me. Then, his sister Rani Ghosh did her Master's after marriage at age 14 and went on to become vice-principal of JB College, Jorhat [in Assam]. Actually education of the girl child was a pet theme of my grandfather, Nabadwip Chandra, who believed that social uplift, especially of the subdued castes and class, can happen only when the women of these families are educated. Among Baba’s papers I found his notes that jotted down storylines on this theme.

That is why, when Starmark celebrated Nabendu Ghosh’s birth anniversary last year, feminist writer Sreemoyee Piu Kundu focused attention on the woman protagonists who outnumber AND outweigh the men at the centre of the stories in TBCH. As screenwriter too, as you have pointed out, he seemed to have created such strong characters that Dimple Kapadia had said, on the sets of Prahaar (1991): “After seeing Sujata and Teesri Kasam, I envy the actors who got to enact the protagonists scripted by him. I regret that I didn’t get him to write such scripts for me.”

As a writer and journalist I feel woman protagonists offer greater scope for drama, because a woman is always more vulnerable, more fragile, compared to a man. The reason for this could be biological, economic, social structure — but if we look around we find that women have provided material for intense human drama. At times she is Lady Macbeth or Lady Chatterley, at other times she is Tagore’s Mrinal (Streer Patra), or Ashapurna’s Subarnalata.
Besides, Bengal worships the goddess Durga. Baba always told me, women are simultaneously Saraswati, the goddess of learning; Lakshmi, the deity of prosperity, and Kali, the icon of destruction. That may be why, beyond the titles you have already mentioned, Nabendu Ghosh has also scripted films like Lal Patthar (1971), where a scorned ‘kept’ — concubine — plans and executes a perfect murder, and a Sharafat (1970) where a tawaif sings, 'Sharifon ka zamaane mein haal jo dekha toh / sharafat chhod di maine'!

How has your father influenced and inspired your own writings? What advice did he give you when you began as a writer?

As I have said elsewhere, I am what I am today as a writer — or otherwise — because I was born to Nabendu and Kanaklata. Growing up in a house where we had to remove piles of books to make our beds every night, I naturally took to loving books even before I could read them. When the unruly Bombay monsoon flooded our house, as it did with irksome regularity, our main concern was how to save the books, with no thought for our clothes, money, utensils or even for the snakes swimming in the waters.

Influence: I started by writing stories in a handwritten magazine ‘published’ every year at Saraswati Puja, when I studied in the Bengali Education Society’s school in Dadar [in central Mumbai]. This was how Nabendu Ghosh had started out as a writer — and yes, they continued to bring out a handwritten magazine, Prabas, even after he had established himself as a screenwriter in Bombay as publishing in Bengali was not easy in 1950.

Years later, he would give me stories to read and ask, “Can this be filmed?” One story which I rejected right away later developed into Do Anjaane (1976). On the other hand, he gave me a script submitted to NFDC [the National Film Development Corporation] and said, “Just read and see what a powerful script this is — from an actor!” This was 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981)!

Inspire: Quite often, when I was still in school, and certainly when I was studying literature in Elphinstone college, we would discuss, say, Doll’s House by Eugene O'Neill or Ray’s Charulata vs Tagore’s Nashtaneer. I first translated Subodh Ghosh’s Baar Bodhu (it is part of River of Flesh) during one of my summer holidays. I read a small item in a newspaper and penned a story about a man dying in the queue for rations and the post-mortem trying to ascertain whether he died of hunger or sunstroke.

Advice: In all these, he would treat me as a junior colleague, never talk down to me but encourage me by saying, ‘this is the strength of what you are saying, but these are the flaws or weaknesses you need to address.’ He always told me, “You have the germs of a literary writer, focus on your creative writing rather than spending your time and energy in highlighting other people’s achievement.”

Impact: In his later life, there were two regrets: a) His colleagues in Bollywood [commercial Hindi cinema] didn’t know the respect he claimed as a litterateur; b) he was running out of time, for there was so much he wanted to write! So he sought my 'assistance' in publishing translations of his stories — Chuninda Kahaniyaan is the result. And he would often tell me, “Whatever I can’t finish writing, you must complete. That will be my biggest lifetime achievement!”