Daily Archives: January 2, 2019

Romtha by Mahasweta Devi. Translated from the Bengali by Pinaki Bhattacharya

Romtha by Mahasweta Devi Title: Romtha
Author: Mahasweta Devi
Translated from the Bengali by Pinaki Bhattacharya
Publisher: Seagull Books
ISBN: 978-8170462576
Genre: Indian Writing, Novella, Novelette
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

I remember the time the movie Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa had released. It was directed by Govind Nihalani and had got not such a great theatrical release. I think it barely must have released in a couple of theatres in Bombay. The year was 1998. That was the time I got to know that the movie that touched me so deeply was based on a book. I also discovered to my pleasure that one of my favourite movies released five years ago in 1993, Rudaali, was also based on the same author’s short story. Those were the times when great literature was converted to films in Indian cinema – till of course the likes of Govinda movies took over. That’s not the point though.

It has been 20 years since I have been reading Mahasweta Devi’s works. Repeatedly. Sometimes, chancing upon one of your favourite authors’ works, purely by accident is the best that could have happened to you. Thankfully, she has written prolifically, and we have so many of her works at our disposal, thanks to Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books.

Mahasweta Devi’s writing is not easy, no matter how big or small her works are. The beauty of the short story written by her is that it has the same impact as that of a novel penned by her. Romtha (Criminal, Convict) is one such example. I cannot believe I hadn’t read it till now, but this lament is for a later date. Back to the book.

Romtha is a story of a criminal – a beautiful young man, Sharan, who is condemned to death for a crime of passion – that of his lover, a beautiful courtesan, Chandrabali. He has killed her and mourns for her, almost yearns for her. In all of this, there is a lonely widow, Subhadra, pining for Sharan – wanting him and yet wants nothing more than her freedom as well. All of this takes place in twelfth century Bengal – shifting from the royal city of Gaur and the rural landscape of Bengal – focusing on how the Romtha culture came to be, drawing details on casteism, hypocrisy of the world, and chalking characters who find no redemption or second chances at life.

Mahasweta Devi’s writings are not comfortable. They make you uncomfortable and rightly so. She talks of issues that she has experienced first-hand. You cannot expect getting into a Mahasweta Devi work and not be reeled by the injustice meted by our society to the less privileged. Romtha speaks of so much more and the muted silences in-between do most of the talking. Every character – from Gopal – the chief security who forces Chandrabali to get intimate with him, Subhadra – just wanting a better life, and Chandrabali who is dead before her time – each of them are threaded by Sharan – the Romtha, who is so ironically named, as there is no refuge for him at all.

Twelfth-century Bengal – its customs, traditions, are brought out with nuance so much so that it had me Googling and finding out more about that time. Also, please do not skip the very insightful interview, Naveen Kishore has with Mahasweta Devi – on words, language, and how they have been used in the story. Pinaki Bhattacharya’s translation is on point – I think it must have been tough given the stream of consciousness that jumps in at the reader, which I loved. Every terrain, texture, emotional landscape, and the beauty of unrequited love, desire, and the possibility of more is expressed empathetically and more so with stark reality.

Mahasweta Devi’s works are par excellence and there is no doubt about it at all. One of my projects this year is to go through all her books – the ones that are translated in English. Thank you, Naveen Kishore, for what you do.

 

 

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Interview with Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

Last year I read a book called The Rabbit and the Squirrel by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi and was deeply touched and moved by it, as most readers who read it were. It is a short book about love, friendship, and loss, told with great brevity, given it is only about sixty pages long.  I wish it were longer. I wish we had more illustrations by Stina Wirsén, as the book moved along and became larger than what it is. But, I am glad it is out there in the world for all to read, love, and appreciate. Siddharth is a friend and I am only extremely happy to have this short interview published on my blog. I wish him more such books, for readers such as I. Thank you, Siddharth.

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Why the long hiatus between The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay and The Rabbit and the Squirrel? 

I don’t think of myself as a professional writer. I make things – photographs, drawings, books. So I don’t measure a gap between books but try and look at what I had done with my time. Between the book, there were photographs, shows I curated, houses I designed – it was all a way of being. But I am also very interested by nonsense things, such as swimming at sea, and I can spend hours, even days looking at cat videos and drinking Goa’s Greater Than gin.

Rabbit

The theme of The Rabbit and the Squirrel to my mind is more than friendship. There are so many emotions that take over this small book, almost everything packed into one. What was the writing experience like? How was it collaborating with the illustrator, Stina?

You know, I have almost no recollection of writing this little fable. I’d made it for someone I cared for deeply; I see now that tenderness for my friend eclipses all recollection of the writing process. Perhaps the story had always been there, a memento of shared, private time. The process of bringing the fable to book form was urged on by my astonishing publisher, Hemali Sodhi; and it was edited with such grace by Niyati Dhuldhoya that it became something else – a rarer, leaner thing – under her attentions.

Stina, the book’s illustrator, is also its co-parent – her sublime, frisky, careful illustrations give this book soul and energy. She is a close personal friend, and instinctively suggested to me to publish this fable – the book exists not only because of her sterling drawings but quite simply because she had been the one to suggest that I publish it.

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How important is the writer’s role in the scheme of things today? When the world is literally falling to pieces, what part do writers play in providing some semblance of hope? I say this because The Rabbit and the Squirrel is full of hope, even though fleetingly. 

Writing, and language, holds steady all that is intangible in our lives. In the articulation of our existence – the articulation of prejudice or heartbreak, of dissent, of rage – we are also able to repair. Language is both a measure as well as the meaning of our time. The writer’s job is to hover a lamp over what is, with language, she must illuminate, show and reveal. Reading is a form of civilising the most private self. It is a way of recognising that a part of this world is falling apart – and then of marshalling language to undo this damage.

Do you ever think one can write without reading? 

No, firmly, absolutely no: you cannot write without reading widely, promiscuously. Your writing will only be as good as your reading.

Your favourite books?

Beloved – Toni Morrison.
Light Years – James Salter.
The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

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Is there another book that we could look forward to? A novel, perhaps? 

I would be so lucky to serve another book. (And thank you for your support over the years, Vivek).

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The Rabbit and the Squirrel moved me to tears. I know several people who have had the same emotions evoked while or after reading the book. What was your intent when you started writing this universal tale? 

I had no intention except to make a gift for a friend. That is what I think of it, still and always, a private little thing made for, and with, love. But yes, I know what you mean – other friends have said that, which has always reminded me that all of us going about our lives with so many broken pieces in our pockets. All of us are suffering. All of us are enduring.

You can buy the book here

Please do buy the book. Please do read it. Please weep and laugh as you read it. Please repeat the process all over again. Gift the books to loved ones. You will be gifting them joy.