Essay: A tribute to Ritwik Ghatak’s writing on his 96th birth anniversary
Decades ago, my mother gifted me a slim, hardbound book in Bengali. It contained short stories by Ritwik Ghatak. I was confused and surprised. Until then, I had known of him only as a radical and much-discussed filmmaker. I kept the book aside because, at that point, it did not interest me much. A few years on, I was invited to give a talk on Ghatak, the Writer. That’s when I read the book over the course of the next two days. My speech was ready and so was I.
Some years later, at the 26th Calcutta Book Fair, Dey’s Publishers of Calcutta released a work by Ghatak entitled On The Cultural Front. It was subtitled: A thesis submitted by Ritwik Ghatak to the Communist Party of India in 1954. It comprised four parts and a preamble. This, however, was not the public’s introduction to Ritwik Ghatak, the writer. The same publishing house also released a new edition of 17 of his short stories – the same book that my mother had gifted me.
Ghatak’s stories have a universal appeal that transcends time, place and culture and yet are deeply rooted in the Bengali ethic and mindset. Between 1950 and 1967, Ghatak did not write a single story. Then, in 1962, he began an autobiographical novel tracing his childhood days in East Bengal. It was a lively childhood interlaced by turbulent rivers like the Padma, a repeated motif in Ghatak’s films and stories. Memories of this ‘heaven’ were to haunt him throughout his life. This is perhaps what makes his end so tragic, so unnecessary.
The memories became more poignant against the backdrop of the Partition in 1947 of which he said “What seems happiness when it is past.” In 1965, he wrote a longish story, a kind of novella called Pandit Moshai, which was sadly neglected and lost. Ghatak then wrote a script based on what he could remember of this story and called it Motherland (Janmabhoomi). Between 1963 and 1971, Ghatak did not have many films on hand. During this time, he wrote many essays and around a dozen scripts and screenplays.
Death takes strange forms in a few of these 17 stories. Many of these are unnatural, the result of killing and getting killed. The how of the killing is less important than the why. In Confession (Ejahar) the protagonist kills a girl to rescue her from the ruins of her life. It is more like a mercy killing. In Love (Prem), which is more like a long poem than a story, the boy kills the girl in a moment of ecstasy to freeze the priceless moment in time. Cruel, but related beautifully.
In Comrade, a man kills the labour leader because the latter sells out to the management. In Eyes (Chokh) the protagonist kills out of fear and guilt. In Fairy Tale (Roopkatha), the editor kills the newspaper owner to avenge himself. Finally, in Undisturbed Earth (Bhooswarga Achanchal), it is death for a cause. The last story is historic because it deals with the Kashmir issue at the time of Sheikh Abdullah and explores the futility of politically induced communal feelings where Muslims were the worst victims of a separate Kashmir. Not all members of the then-Azad Kashmir were Kashmiris. Nor were they Hindu or Muslim. They came of stock that brought to mind the Gestapo during Hitler’s Germany. Ritwik pinpoints this in just a few pages of a story that highlights the courage of an apparently timid man as much as it stresses on the cause that a well-known leader dies for.
Some of the descriptions of these killings remind one of Subarnarekha, which he made in 1962. The method is brutal, sudden and shocking in its audiovisual impact, giving the author an edge over writers who are not filmmakers. Ghatak gets carried away by the intricacies of the Bengali language. He slips easily into the colloquial as he does into classical Bengali, often fusing the two in the same story without disturbing the rich texture of the content. He has also used East Bengali dialect for his earlier story Dalil (Document) which was one of the most noted plays put up by IPTA.
His exploration of the world of sound is lucid in every story. The most remarkably in The Touchstone (Parash Pathar.) Ghatak counterpoints the melodious notes of the raag Kafi with the sounds of blasting within a coal mine. The impact of sound and how this can physically manifest itself within a man’s mind and body makes the story a strikingly unusual one. He does this through an eccentric character who claims he knows the secret of life, and has the ability to conquer Death.
The first story by him to be published is Akashgangar Srot Dhorey in Galpo-Bharati. Later, Desh, Agrani, Shanibarer Chithi, Notun Sahitya and Fatwa also published his short stories. Filmlologist Bibekananda Ray however, insists that Ghatak’s first story was the then-unpublished Dalil which he probably penned while doing his English Honours at Krishnanath College in Berhampur, restive about his forced migration to the other side of Bengal. Another version states that his first short story was Raja, a touching account of a poet-turned-pickpocket who tries to rescue himself from his debauched life. However, his work ethic wins over his first love, poetry.
Ghatak’s prose reads like poetry, full of visual imagery, descriptions that hark back, at times, to a blend of William Wordsworth and William Earnest Henley (The Unconquerable). Yet, it has the childlike simplicity of that age-old once-upon-a-time structure. He allows his structure to wind its way through the forests of metaphor, allegory and the delicate intricacies of unusual, unrelated human relationships.
For a cinema and theatre man to be so profound, so versatile and fluid in his writings both in English and in Bengali, what marked his reading preferences? What gave him such a solid background to converse fluently on so many things under the sun? His father, Rai Bahadur Suresh Chandra Ghatak, a magistrate in Mymensingh and Rajshahi districts of east Bengal, aroused in him the love for Sanskrit classics, the Vedas and the Upanishads, which often formed an integral motif in his films. In 1942, he was brought back from Kanpur to Rajshahi.
He promptly plunged himself into the 10,000 books in the public library of Rajshahi. He developed a love for the anti-Fascist movement of World War II which included Marx and Lenin. He later read a great deal on archaeology, on the Buddha, he read the works of Jung, specially his psychology of the collective unconscious. His widow the late Surama Ghatak said that his favourite reading included The Collected Works of Jung, The Great Mother by Erich Newmann, Before Philosophy by Frankfurt, The Outlines of Mythology by Lewis Spence, The Dance of Shiva by Anand Coomaraswamy and The Method of Madness by Robert Lewis. The films he made between 1956 and 1966 bear strong imprints of his deep and obsessive study of these books.
Many of Ghaatak’s English essays have been put together in Cinema and I. In these, Ghatak, in his candid style, questions the form and content of cinema as it is popularly understood and presented. He explains his own ideas on cinema. He does the same thing in Arguments/Stories, a book jointly edited by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Amrit Gangar, published by Screen Unit.
His English springs from “the air, the water and the soil that gave birth to the artist himself” writes film critic Vidyarthi Chatterjee. Publishers did not tamper with Ghatak’s typical brand of English, filled with the most offhand expressions conveying profound truths in a fascinating way. His comments on Pather Panchali stand as a counterpoint to his critical views on the literary influence in Bengali cinema. “It is true that Pather Panchali was based on a famous novel. But for the first time, the story was narrated in the filmic idiom. The language was sound. Artistic truth was upheld. The fundamental difference between the two art forms (the literary and the cinematic) was delineated.”
Shoma A Chatterji is an independent writer. She lives in Kolkata.