Sunday, March 20, 2016

The unyielding shall not yield

The Ballad of Bant Singh
A Qissa of Courage
Nirupama Dutt
Speaking Tiger
Pages: 214
Price: Rs 250

Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

On the ill-fated night of 6 January 2006, Bant Singh, a folk-singer and crusader of the oppressed was passing through the fields of Jhabhar village on his bicycle. Presently his path was blocked by seven young men. He realised he was in danger because these upper class boys had attacked him twice earlier. Before he could do anything, four of them struck him and dragged him to the edge of the irrigation canal. “There they put his legs on the embankment wall. A rough cloth was thrown on him as four of the men pinned him down. Two raised the metal handles and brought them down with all their strength on his shins. The pain stunned Bant but he still tried to raise himself and shouted, ‘What are you doing? What have I done for you to hit me?’ One of the boys struck him with even greater force and hissed, ‘We are just doing a job that has been assigned to us. Today, you will not get away!’ Blow upon blow, and the bones of Bant Singh’s legs were splintered beyond repair. Then, sure that Bant had been irretrievable incapacitated, they swung him about and began attacking his arms.”

This horrendous incident is from veteran writer, poet, translator and journalist Nirupama Dutt’s book 
The Ballad of Bant Singh, which I received on the very day some Jats of Haryana launched their stir demanding a special backward status. In a matter of days, they spread arson and anarchy all around paralysing the entire state. As I read the book, I found it hard to miss the irony of the whole situation. On the one hand, we have a large population that has been socially oppressed for thousands of years, and on the other hand, there is a better placed social section that is now agitating to gain the selfsame reserved status which was given to the downtrodden to allow them to catch up with the rest.

Nirupama Dutt’s book is about a man from a disadvantaged section stretching his hands out to justice and in turn having them cut off.  What was his crime for which he was brutally attacked and left for dead?

Six years ago, Bant Singh’s daughter Bajleet, who was then a minor, was gang raped. Outraged by the despicable act, he rightfully  sought justice.  In order to stop him from reporting the matter to the police, he was offered money and gold by the culprits as if violation of his daughter’s honour was a kind of minor road accident in which the defaulter offers money as compensation. In rural areas, the poor sections are taken for granted, and sexual crimes against their women are not seen as crimes at all but rather as a favour done to them. When Bant Singh refused, he was threatened with dire consequences. He did not care about such threats, her pursued the case and as a result, three of the accused were awarded life imprisonment.

“Bant Singh’s was that rare case,” writes Dutt, “in which a Dalit had defied the sarpanch of a village to seek justice in a court and had succeeded in having the culprits sentenced to life imprisonment. And for this, he and his family had to pay a very heavy price. This is because a Dalit had actually succeeded in getting an upper-caste Jat man and two others convicted of rape.” This could not be digested by the powerful landowners, and they decided to make an example out of him. The idea of retribution is very strong among the landowners. They seek revenge even among their own caste and it can run through generations. And Bant Singh was from a lower caste, he had to be dealt with severely and immediately.

Dutt’s powerful narrative is a mix of biography and documentary, although at times the documentary aspect becomes longer than necessary. As Bant Singh is also an accomplished folk singer, Dutt has deftly made use of folk songs and poems to tell the story. However, one notices the tendency to read more than what was intended in folk literature, and to see everything from one world-view.

The book portrays the hell Bant Singh, Baljeet Kaur and his family went through at the hands of the rich and powerful. Although they were physically and emotionally tormented, they did not cow down.

When you watch him speak and sing on the television, you find a cheerful man without a trace of self-pity. The head bows to him in respect to his indomitable spirit, and also bows down with shame because such inhumanity continues in this age in the world’s biggest democracy.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

From the master of mystery and macabre

Review by Kuldip Dhiman for The Tribune

Indigo —
by Satyajit Ray.
Translated by
Satyajit Ray and Gopa Majumdar.
Pages 264.

Kuldip Dhiman

There is this 200-year-old haunted mansion in Raghunathpur where ghost hunter, Anath Babu decides to spend a night alone. In the dead of the night he waits for the ghost to show up. . . . We read in anticipation. Will the ghost appear or not?

Then there is this strange man simply known  as ‘Mr Eccentric’. He has a peculiar habit of picking up lost things off the ground and telling all about their past owners. One day, he finds a button. ‘That button,’ he tells the narrator, ‘came from the jacket of an Englishman. He was riding down Jalapahar Road. The man was almost 60, dressed in riding clothes, hale and hearty, a military man. When he reached the spot where I found the button, he had a stroke, and fell from his horse. Two passersby saw him and rushed to help, but he was already dead. That button came off his jacket as he fell from his horse.”

In Bipin Chowdhury’s Lapse of Memory, a stranger walks up to Bipin Chowdhury and says, ‘We met every day for a whole week. I arranged for a car to take you to the Hudroo falls. In 1958. In Ranchi.’ Mr Chowdhury had never been to Ranchi. Bipin Babu begins to check with others and they all say he was indeed in Ranchi in 1958. Bipin Babu begins to wonder if he was losing his head.
Indigo is a collection of 21 short stories, some translated by the master himself and some by Gopa Majumdar.

Satyajit Ray was truly one of the last of Bengal Renaissance men. We usually think of him as a filmmaker, but he had other talents too. He was a gifted artist, illustrator, musician, and popular writer of fiction.

In this collection, we get an assortment of ghost stories, science fiction, and the macabre. These genres were introduced in the West by Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Franz Kafka, Daphne du Maurier, Ray Bradbury....

Satyajit Ray was no doubt influenced by these writers but he tells the stories in his own style. In the story, Khagam, Ray combines horror and macabre genres. In The Hungry Septopus, we have Kanti Babu, a botanist who is in search of a rare carnivorous plant called septopus. He finally finds it, but he never imagined the horror his find would unleash.

Indigo is a haunting ghost story. Told in the first person, it grips you from the beginning to the terrifying climax. In Ratan Babu and That Man, the protagonist is an eccentric loner who finds a doppelganger, a lookalike, in Manilal Babu. He thinks that he has finally met his alter ego who will understand him and empathise with him, but unbeknown to him, there is danger in store. In this story, Ratan Babu’s sudden urge to kill Manilal Babu is not very convincing but the story is chilling nevertheless.

Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment, Anath Babu’s Terror, The Two Magicians, Ashamanja Babu’s Dog, Indigo, Khagam, The Hungry Septopus, and Fritz are some of the best stories in this collection. Anath Babu’s Terror, a ghost story, is good but its ending is not very satisfying. Some stories build up the suspense well but disappoint at the end.

In most of the stories, the protagonists are unassuming men finding themselves in extraordinary situations. The stories written in the first person are more engrossing than others. Ray creates realistic characters and the atmosphere in each story makes you feel as if you are a part of the narration. Both Ray and Majumdar have done a great job of translation.

One wishes at least a couple of Ray’s detective stories were also included in this collection.