Like a skilled gem cutter, Nabendu Ghosh in his short story collection That Bird Called Happiness: Stories facets and cuts that universal yet complex emotion called Love until it sparkles with brilliance, throwing a different light in each of the stories.
In ‘Lights!’ love is the pod of a tree waiting for the searing heat of a forest fire to melt its resin and release its seed. Umrao, a child born to abject poverty, bursts into an astonishing beauty in youth. A nifty move by fate and she becomes the highest earning star of the silver screen. Her combined allure of beauty and money is hard to resist and screenwriter Shaukat falls wildly in love with her. She in turn is moved by his poetic sensibilities. Reciprocating the feelings of the besotted lover, she marries him. Trouble begins soon after, for love is not a kitten to pet and play and shut away. Along with love, Umrao makes the acquaintance of its handmaidens—anger, hate, and jealousy. Her potent anger is out to destroy him. When Shaukat is shattered, a feeling akin to love passes over Umrao, miraculously. Is it ‘the evening sun that sings to the pearl in the oyster’ that has effected this wonder?
‘Full Circle’ is a beautifully crafted story set in restless Calcutta of Partition times. It tells the life of Sreedhar Bhattacharya, an upright schoolteacher and arbitrator of social problems in the village, and his daughter, the innocent Gouri Sreedhar. Bhattacharya is living a contented life when communal fury like a turbulent storm blows into his village, uprooting all that it passes. Sreedhar Bhattacharya’s lifetime work—his school, is razed down by foolish anger. To add to his misery, his young daughter is spirited away by miscreants. Writhing in agony Sreedhar Bhattacharya realizes that he has come full circle. His lifetime dedication to knowledge and learning has come to nothing. For, Karma is a mean bitch.
Sometimes it seems love is a hot griddle over which man is turned and turned again. Madhavrao of ‘The Path’ is a school teacher who falls in love with flowering Gunvanthi. She is married to a widower and Madhavrao’s world which once saw the colours of the rainbow, goes back to its monochrome existence. Only three months into marriage, Gunvanthi returns a widow and once more Madhavrao’s heartstrings begin to strum. But life is never straightforward. Madhav and Gunvanthi meet and part, to meet and part only to meet and part anew.
‘The heart wants what it wants.’ Love is sometimes a sickness, an obsession. In ‘Possessed’, young Chinmayi falls in love with her brother-in-law. Fate engineers it so that she comes to live with her sister. Mallika, her sister, has a short life and dies in childbirth. Chinmayi’s deepest desire could come true if only her grief-crazed brother-in-law would look at her.
In ‘The Story of Fatima’, the protagonist plays by the rules of her father until it is too late. The only feeling that upholds her in the end is, that she has ‘not broken his heart’.
In ‘That Bird called Happiness’, four teachers on a pilgrimage to Badrinath are woken in the middle of the night by a scratchy voice singing songs of love. Who is the singer and why does he sing so insistently? The wandering mendicant passes in the night leaving behind only a bag of letters. A convoluted story but the message is clear. How many sacrifices must love demand, before a man is spent?
‘Papui Island’ has an interesting twist. The ghost of a man poisoned by his love comes looking for a place of refuge that would afford not just shelter but love and protection from a fickle world. There is an unsullied innocence about this island. But the winds of change are blowing hard. And the cackling spirits of the night bring news of this. Sure enough, a ship bearing white men comes, bringing guns, alcohol and death to a haven. When they leave, a button is pressed and Papui, the island of light and hope and love disappears. But there is a sense of hope, of new beginnings when things come to an end.
‘The Fifth Raga’ is a story of the vagaries of the human heart. Akbar Ali has noble blood in his veins but has not learnt to focus his mind or tame his heart. Losing his fortune comes naturally to him given his urge for vices. Forced to go abroad to earn a living, he pines for his home, and for the first time, his begum. Now letters come regularly to his unlettered begum who has to enlist the services of the serious young man next door. As custom dictates, their communication is limited by purdah. But, there is something tantalizing in a soft voice behind a purdah. The end is a master stroke and leaves us puzzling.
Love is the dancer with seven veils. Without it life is insipid, with it tumultuous. Slippery, it is impossible to catch or hold or keep. Whimsical it is, and a teaser. Making love his focus, Nabendu Ghosh lifts a few veils. Sometimes the focus and the brevity of the short story form is impaired by the long-windedness of narration. But there is no denying that he looks at the shape shifting nature of love and into the heart of man with great lucidity.
Sumitra Kannan, a freelance reviewer, has published in the Deccan Herald, Bangalore.