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Atlas of a Master Storyteller

As a child, the high point of my life used to be the storytelling sessions we had during summer vacations. When Preetha, Praveenchettan, Pramod, Rajesh, Dinesh and I gathered around Jagdish (or Jagguettan, as we call him; our eldest cousin on my father’s side), listening in rapt silence to the stories he told us. No one, but no one, told a story like he did.

In a matter of minutes, he could make the walls of the small side room in Krishna Vihar disappear. And I would be standing on an unpaved street in the Wild West, watching Clint Eastwood enter, eyes screwed up against the sun, a cigar dangling from the side of his mouth… I would see his hat and poncho, his black horse, the taunting menNow he is taking out his gun and— Dhishkyaun! My heart would jump to my mouth even as the bad guys lay dead on the ground. Jagguettan could, with the same ease, take me to a studio in the Greenwich Village where Jhonsy would be looking out of the window and counting the leaves on the ivy vine opposite. And when Sue revealed Behrman’s masterpiece, my eyes would sting with tears too embarrassed to flow out.

Jagguettan, with his endless supply of stories, trivia and comic books, used to be my hero.  This, despite the fact that he had once declared me dead, while showing me how to find the pulse point on my wrist. After probing my then-skinny wrist for a good minute, he let go of it with a shake of his head. “No pulse,” he informed. “You’re dead!”

***

Growing up deprives you of a lot. For one, it takes you far away from cousins who tell stories. And when life decides its time for you to grow up, it comes at your bubble with a sledgehammer. All you can do is to quietly fold and pack the broken pieces of your childhood and stow them out of sight – in the farthest corner of your heart. Then you turn to books, a small part of you forever seeking your master storyteller between their pages. In hope.

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Then one day, another lifetime or so later, comes a book. “I saw the home of a god at latitude 28º28′ south and longitude 105º21′ west — a deserted rock crowded with seabirds far, far out in the Pacific,”  it begins. Your ears perk up. That voice – you know it! You’ve heard it before, in an almost-forgotten past. You read on, now eager, hopeful. And as the “…wave-battered, treeless, bush-less cliffs devoid of fresh water, grass, flowering plants and moss” unfurl before you, you realise with a thrill that it’s him, your Great Storyteller. You’ve found him again, inside the covers of this magical book titled ‘Atlas of an Anxious Man’.

You are, once again, that wide-eyed child standing at the open gates of wonderland. 

As Christoph Ransmayr begins each story with “I saw…”, I see what he saw. I see people – living, dying and long-dead. I see oceans, islands, rainforests and polar ice caps. Icy peaks, salmon-filled rivers and volcanic lakes. Abandoned graveyards, sunken ships, and remains of ancient civilizations. I hear batwings, birdsongs, and five laughing men. And sometimes, as when I see “an empty park bench, one of three on the market square beside the wrought-iron fence of the adjacent apothecary garden in the village of Lambach in Upper Austria,” my eyes fill up.

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Christoph Ransmayr*

Translated by Simon Pare for Seagull Books, the note in the jacket modestly describes Atlas of an Anxious Man as a ‘unique account that follows (its author) across the globe’. I would rather call it a book of stories. Stories woven out of Ransmayr’s experiences as an involved observer of people, places and events. Stories of love, grief, courage, heartbreak and lasting hope. Narrated as if to a group of close friends gathered around the fireplace on a cold evening.

The text inside the gorgeous jacket designed by Sunandini Banerjee is lyrical. It meanders unhurriedly through the many geographies Ransmayr has visited, pausing every so often to admire a garden or a graveyard, talk to its keeper, or listen to the sound of a sheepdog barking at a distance. The journey that starts from that first barren island 3,200 kilometres off the Chilian coast continues in no particular order across oceans, islands, mountains and continents, across treeless hillsides and tropical rainforests, across countrysides, cities and suburbs, until it reaches its lofty destination. As if the author is opening his atlas at random pages to shows us what he saw there.

“This crater, riven by erosion and tectonics, and half collapsed, resembled a skewed cauldron whose contents – a small house with a corrugated-iron roof, animal sheds, a barn and, above all, bellowing cattle and skin and bone horses on stony, black pastures – were about to be tipped into the sea. The cauldron’s lower rim lay so close to the surf that it was flecked again and again with flakes of spray whereas the upper edge of the crater faded away high above the breakers into scudding patches of fog.”

And I see it all. Every little thing.

Geography, however, is just one facet – albeit an intensely alive one – of this gem. There is also history, anthropology, politics, biology and astronomy. Philosophy too, among other things, woven intricately into the narrative by this master craftsman. Ultimately, Atlas of an Anxious Man is about human beings, as they come.

“I saw the dark, sweaty face of the fisherman Ho Doeun on a stormy November night in Phnom Penh. The capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia was celebrating the water festival that night. Ho was kneeling on the bank of the Mekong, under the sparkling bouquets of fireworks whose flaming arches and bridges of light spanned the river for two or three heartbeats before fading away in a thundering spectacle of colour.”

What makes this book so exceptional to me, however, is the silken thread of compassion that runs through the length of its narrative. There is no judgment – none at all. The man who narrates these stories has already made his peace with vagaries, both human and otherwise. He is merely telling us what he saw, heard, felt and remembered.

“…an autumn bird no longer really had to impress anyone very much. It sang, when it sang, more for itself than for or against another bird.”

And if I feel a lingering sense of melancholy after turning the last page, it could be because the afterglow has lit up some forgotten corners of my soul – where the wait for the next Great Storyteller has resumed.

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In the Country of Men – A Story of Love and Grief

Grief loves the hollow, all it wants is to hear its own echo. Be careful.

Many times while reading Hisham Matar’s ‘In the Country of Men’, I asked myself if this book would have resonated so much with me had I not been living here, in the UAE. If I had not had, among my friends, people who hail from other Middle East nations. If we had not shared stories with each other over tea and croissants. Or reminisced longingly about our home countries while maneuvering the rush hour traffic…

The answer is, probably not. Because some stories tend to remain once removed until they enter your immediate orbit. Until the ambiguous ‘they’ becomes a Maha, Sameh or Yasmin. Until you see at close quarters the shadow of displacement and hopeless longing at the edges of their brown, sun-lit eyes. Then they begin to find their echo in you.

Once, early on in my brief stint with a corporate house as its content provider, I was introduced to someone who had just come back from Syria after the funeral of his sister. She had been arrested some weeks ago for taking part in protests. In the same office, a young girl, only slightly older than my son, went to her country on vacation and was held there under house arrest. In the idealism of her youth, she had posted some images of protests on social media. It took months of intervention for her to be allowed out of her country.

In the Country of Men reminded me of all these stories. And others I have heard and read over the past twelve years in the Middle East.

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Set in Tripoli, Libya, during Qaddafi’s regime, the narrative unfolds as a series of events seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Suleiman. Slooma, as he is fondly addressed by the people close to him, is a not-very-silent witness to personal and political realities he is unable to fully grasp.  His beautiful yet ‘ill’ mother is an enigma; so is his businessman father who suddenly goes away without informing him. Then there are others – friends, neighbours, and acquaintances – whose lives are inextricably tied to his own: Moosa, Nasser and several others, including his friend and next door neighbour Kareem and his father Ustath Rashid.

Suleiman is puzzled and deeply hurt by the events that unfold, and he reacts to them in ways that only a child is capable of. In the end, he too bears the brunt of an uprising gone wrong in the world of adults.

In the Country of Men is also a story of love – the love of a nine-year-old son for his mother. She who condemns Sheherzadie of One Thousand and One Nights for choosing the life of a slave over death. Suleiman’s love for his mother is complex, often inexplicable even to himself. He longs to protect her from her own past, from all the men who seem to run her life. Yet there are times when he is filled with anger and hatred towards this self-absorbed woman with secrets he can’t bear to be privy to.

If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark, warm embrace of hate, but always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love. 

In the Country of Men certainly has its moments. Poignant ones. Some as beautiful as the Mediterranean sea and sky they evoke. And there are words that linger even after you close the book and put it away.

I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss. (…) How readily and thinly we procure these fictional selves, deceiving the world and what we might have become if we hadn’t got in the way, if only we had waited to see what might have become of us.

So it goes, Matar’s narrative, which effectively conveys Suleiman’s love, loneliness, bewilderment and misplaced anger to the reader, while highlighting the pervading sense of the fear and anxiety that stems from Libya’s political climate of the time. The unease that Suleiman feels is also the reader’s.

I have to admit though that I was left feeling a little dissatisfied, especially towards the end, when the story suddenly seems to fragment, dissipate. There are  paragraphs that felt disjointed and rushed, pages I sought more from. When I turned the last page and closed the book, I couldn’t help but feel that the narrative stopped just short of achieving something. Poetry, perhaps. Or something equally vague.

Or perhaps the fault lies in my expectations.

For a while now, I had been reading more about books than books themselves. My desk and bookshelf are full of half-read fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  Sometimes I feel as if the summer has a vice-grip on my soul, not allowing me to focus on anything. ‘In the Country of Men’ is, in truth, the first book I have completed in many weeks. And I feel a sense of release – as if a dark spell has been broken. As if the ennui, the listlessness, will soon begin to ebb, like the heat outside. In that sense, I do have a lot to be grateful for. To Hisham Matar’s Man Booker Prize-nominated book.

 

No Fixed Abode: an Introspection of Urban Isolation

I have a penchant for rereading books I like. A variation of the errant tendency that makes me repeatedly listen to the same song or watch the same movie till it becomes a part of my DNA. The thing is, I like the comfort of returning to a familiar space, no unpleasant surprises in store. And there is also the thrill of finding interpretations and nuances that were missed the first time round.

Recently, though, I have developed a new habit. I return to the same book just hours after I have finished reading it the first time. I think it started with The Pilgrim’s Bowl. I was so unwilling to put it down that I went back quite a few times, revisiting random lines, paragraphs and chapters. Now I find myself doing it with other books too. Maybe my reluctance to part is growing with age. 

When I finished reading No Fixed Abode, I knew I had to read it again, and urgently. The reasons were very different from those that made me return to The Pilgrim’s Bowl. If that one was about poetry and nostalgia, this was because it left me – for want of a better term – restless. The kind of restlessness one feels when one is not able to decipher the last couple of clues in a crossword puzzle. 

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No Fixed Abode is not a book that would ordinarily have crossed my path or mind. I got it at the recommendation of a friend, one with similar taste in words. The name itself was intriguing to me. For someone who lost count of the number of times she has moved homes, such a name would automatically ring a bell.

Then of course there is the seductive charm of a hardbound, beautifully produced book batting its eyelashes at you through its prim grey jacket. There’s no book-lover alive who can resist that kind of temptation. I couldn’t. 

A confession: It’s rarely that I read a book blurb before I’m through with the book itself (I know it doesn’t make sense, but then, that’s me – I hardly make sense), but this time the terms ‘ethnofiction’ and ‘fictional ethnography’ on the inside flap of the jacket caught my attention. Certain polysyllabic words are so irresistible that it is hard to leave them behind and walk away. You have to bend down, pick them up and hold them to the light.

So I did my usual back and forth with Google and came up with this definition by Tobias Hecht, an American anthropologist, ethnographer, and translator:  

Ethnographic fiction is a form that blends the fact-gathering research of an anthropologist with the storytelling imagination of a fiction writer. It is not a true story, but it aims to depict a world that could be as it is told and that was discovered through anthropological research.

I warmed up to the term – and to the genre itself – immediately. Marrying anthropology and imagination seemed like the perfect situation, leading to endless possibilities. The rest of the blurb actually piqued my interest further: urban poverty and the resultant isolation is not a topic I come across very often, except in essays and activist Tweets. 

No Fixed Abode, however, did not fit into any slot I had created for it. In fact, it couldn’t have been further from all of them. 

Narrated as irregular diary entries made by Henri, a retired tax inspector who can no longer afford to maintain a home in Paris, No Fixed Abode explores the growing distance between an individual and the wider society he has been a part of, in a personal yet curiously objective manner. 

I’ve always dreamt about escaping. It’s a recurrent night time scene. The scenario’s never entirely the same, but each time I find myself surrounded by enemies who’ve miraculously failed to notice my presence(…) I wake up suddenly, shaken and upset, and the relief at having escaped my demons – those demons I can’t identify but which return regularly to haunt me – soon gives way to anxiety at having to face the tedium of the daily round. 

Henri’s ‘escape’ from domesticity, and subsequently his identity, happens by degrees: a slow transition from being an ordinary citizen to one that veers off the expected course, warily treading the unfamiliar paths of homelessness. In relinquishing his possessions, Henri is also leaving behind everything that has thus far been integral to his existence. To him, being alone is no longer an imposition, it is something he accepts  without resentment.

Loneliness — it’s best to call it by its name — has nothing unbearable about it. Silence is less annoying than the efforts aimed at overcoming it, and it’s infinitely less painful to be quiet on your own than when there is two of you.

As his grip on everyday social requisites loosens, Henri finds himself faltering at the fringes of the normal, unsure of the way ahead. The ties that bind him to the community are fraying, and even being with friends is no longer what it used to be.

It’s difficult to play a role when there are no grounds for that role anymore, difficult to stay in your place when you’ve lost that place, or to exist in another person’s dwelling when you yourself have no fixed abode, are without hearth or home, are almost nameless.

Henri’s defining moment comes when Dominique, an artist who drifts into his life, invites him into hers, once again offering a chance to return to society. As Henri makes his choice, his readers are faced with the vagaries of a culture that has rendered their choices and priorities questionable at best. 

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Marc Auge

To me, No Fixed Abode is a rather dispassionate introspection of urban isolation in the form of a deceptively simple narrative. Written by Marc Auge and translated by Chris Turner for Seagull Books, the book poses questions that are both cultural and anthropological, leaving the reader a little disturbed – as if suddenly confronted with an uncomfortable truth.  

They say books appeal to us because we find bits and pieces of ourselves in there. Or because we find in them answers we have been seeking. In which case, I’m not sure why I felt compelled to immediately reread No Fixed Abode: whether I was looking for fragments of the self, or trying to find answers.

Perhaps I was merely attempting to understand the questions themselves better. 

All I can say is that the book left me just as ruffled the second time too. Some truths remain uncomfortable regardless of how many times you confront them.

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The cover of No Fixed Abode has been designed by Sunandini Banerjee from a photograph by Bishan Samaddar.

*Images courtesy Google Images

Performing the Goddess

Among other things, I collect stories too. I pick them up from wherever I can. From friends, friends of friends, and strangers on the metro. From the wayside, park bench, and passing conversations. In fact, my box of collectibles – the wooden one with brass inlay – is full to brimming with stories.

I have them in all shapes, sizes and colours, from the flat brown ones with lichen growing on their sides, to those that gleam with opalesque iridescence. There are fairy tales, and fables with and without morals. There are stories of men and women and displaced children; of gods, demigods and goddesses… And among them is the story of a man who is also a woman, and transforms into a goddess by night.

The story of Chapal Bhaduri, once the ‘leading lady’ of the Jatra (literally, ‘travel’), West Bengal’s larger-than-life, theatre-in-the-round form.

That one came to me through a friend – by far the most avid collector of stories I have come across. He doesn’t put them in a box, though – he gives them wings and sets them free. In the hands of Naveen Kishore, Founder and Director of Seagull Books, those stories take the form of beautiful books. Or films. Or photographs. Or —

Well, with him, the possibilities are endless.

And so the story found its way to him, as they tend to. That’s the thing about stories – they’re like the Prince of Persia. They would do anything to get to their listener: cross the seven seas,  slay dragons… Whatever it takes.

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Naveen had first met Chapal Bhaduri while he was interviewing the latter’s older sister, late Ketaki Dutta, who was a commercial stage actresses. Chapal-da, as he is popularly known, was ‘a fleeting presence serving tea and biscuits’. As Jatra was a popular art form while he was growing up, Naveen recognised him and got talking.

“The only work he currently had was to transform into Sitala Devi, the goddess of small pox, for 40-odd nights a year. Roadside performances at the equivalent of a pound a night!” 

Moved by his story, Naveen Kishore shot some black-and-white photographs of the performance, and of him transforming into a woman and a goddess night after night. Those pictures later became part of a Sotheby’s auction, and among other things, a travelling exhibition called ‘Woman/Goddess’.

One day, Chapal-da felt comfortable enough to ask Naveen for a cooking job so he could earn ‘a thousand rupees a month to stay alive’. 

“Here was this ‘star’ with so much to share, and no government or private structure in place to look after him and others like him. I was surrounded, it seemed, by such people. An amazing cameraman who was currently out of work, a puppet-maker in Kerala… All out of sync, all with so much to pass on…”

So instead of giving a cooking job to an artist, Naveen decided to make a ‘talking head’ documentary on him. That was how Performing the Goddess began, as a photo essay about a once-popular female impersonator rendered redundant by the passage of time.

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To call Performing the Goddess a documentary would be misleading. It’s a heart-to-heart between a master performer and his invisible audience of one, punctuated with shots of the make-up process that transforms a man into a woman into a goddess. There is no voiceover adding innuendos to the viewer’s experience, and there is a touching lack of hyperbole to the narration – the drama is strictly reserved for the re-performances of milestone extracts from Chapal-da’s Jatra plays. There is just this intimate conversation that we are privy to. 

Chapal Bhaduri had entered the Jatra scene when it was hugely popular across West Bengal. As women were not allowed to be part of the Jatra, female roles were played by male actors. Chapal-da debuted as Marjina, the female protagonist of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and he fondly recalls the attention he received from male fans, who often courted him as they would a girl. As he animatedly talks, sometimes about his childhood, sometimes about the various roles he had played, we get glimpses of an era gone by, when his art meant everything to him.

Weariness sets in only when he talks about the present. Weariness is perhaps the wrong word here – what one sees is acceptance. Of the inevitable passage of time. Chapal Rani was eased out of the Jatra scene by age, and women taking over the female roles.

I’m no longer in the Jatra because the Jatra no longer has any use for me.

Yes, there is loneliness, the emptiness of being left behind by a world that has decided to move on. But there is no bitterness, no despair.

The condition I was in could’ve driven me to the streets, but here I am in front of the camera, speaking to you…

And he goes on to talk about his role as Sitala Devi, the goddess of diseases, and how it has altered his perceptions, his life.

***

The documentary should have ended there, in the normal course of things. But some stories have a mind of their own – they wander off on roads untravelled, and there’s nothing the teller can do but follow their course.

“The film had started life as any other exercise in interview-based cultural anthropology. Except that Chapal-da had other ideas. He came to my office 10 days before I was to edit and said he wanted to talk to me. Alone.”

And that was how the rest of the story unfolded.

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There are so many things… I sometimes wonder… Are they natural, normal? You know what I’m talking about.

As he talks about his troubled sexuality, the feminine emotions and biological responses he has experienced all his life, the Chapal Bhaduri we meet is a different man. Hesitant, anxious, and still vaguely haunted by the rights and wrongs of the society.

I really want to talk about this, but…

It is a vulnerable human being who speaks about a ‘certain someone’ with whom he had shared a deep physical and emotional bond for three decades, until he left him for a younger woman. The wounds have healed as well as they could, but traces of that great love still lingers in Chapal-da’s voice, his face, in the smile that is not quite one.

This raw papaya dish that I am making, this is a dish he was fond of, extremely fond of…

And yet there is a quiet dignity to him that transcends his words.

“He wanted his sexuality to be shared like his art—simply, and with amazing dignity. And the fact that the film premiered on a mainstream Bengali channel and got wonderful feedback from everyone proved that his instinct for dignity had worked.”  

With the film receiving much attention, Chapal Bhaduri was once again in demand. The media took an interest in him, as did film-makers like Rituparno Ghosh, who made a feature film based on his life. Performing the Goddess proved to be a new beginning for the old artist.

***

Chapal Bhaduri’s performance was recently staged as a fitting finale to the two-day conference on “Transgender Embodiments and Experiences: Problems and Possibilities” organised by Department of Sociology – Presidency College, Kolkata, as part of ‘Celebrating 200 Years of Presidency’.

Despite dramatically ascending the stage with cries of ‘Who am I?’, ‘Won’t anyone tell me who I am?’, Chapal Bhaduri did not attempt to address the topic of transgenderism as the representative of a community – neither the Transgender Development Board nor the LGBTIQ+ rights groups are of any significance to him. He spoke for himself, insisting that the world of 1950s and 60s with its homophobic legalities was a much better one for him. He has no slogans to raise, no rights to claim.

After a lifetime spent transcending and transposing genders with ease, Chapal Bhaduri, at 77, is still an artist first. And his sexuality, like his art, remains simple and dignified.

Navin Kishore - Installation

*All photographs courtesy Naveen Kishore, Founder & Director, Seagull Books, Calcutta – India.   (I had to take screenshots of some as WordPress did not accept the high res images. You should have seen the originals!) 

Please send your queries on Performing the Goddess to feedbackatseagullindia.com.

Also read:

http://raiot.in/chapal-bhaduri-bengali-folk-theatres-last-living-female-impersonator/

http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/performing-the-goddess-chapal-bhaduris-story-documentary-screened-in-calcutta/1/256317.html 

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/33053