A Postard From India

Photo by Sanhita Mukherjee.

I was honored and proud to be asked to write the foreword to the English version of this moving and vivid short story collection. Congratulations, translator Sanhita Mukherjee and Bengali author Raja Sinha  (also spelled in English Raja Singho). The Postcard Tales launched this weekend at the Chennai Book Fair in India.

Here’s where you can get it:

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FOREWORD

Jamaica Kincaid once wrote, A great piece of literature encompasses all that is and all that will be.

Yes, this applies even to short stories.

A great short story stands alone. It is not an excerpt from a novel or a vague synopsis of a longer story crammed into a predetermined word count. A great short story is a stolen glance through a window into someone else’s life. The best ones leave us with a sense of “sweet sorrow,” a yearning to linger there on the sidewalk a little longer even though we must press on to our own destinations. Such stories don’t need a contrived cliffhanger ending in order to leave us dying to know what happens next. They accomplish that effect through more organic and nuanced means.

The first short stories I experienced were fairy tales read to me by my mother before I was old enough to go to school. Then came the Jack Tales, a unique feature of my Appalachian upbringing. Later I would discover the short stories of Rabindranath Tagore, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, John Cheever, Edgar Allan Poe. Some capture the human condition with horror, others with humor, others with nightmarish satire. They have all left me comforted in knowing I wasn’t the only one experiencing life’s suffering; that in some way it’s communal, that we’re all in it together. They left me satisfied, but a little bit sad to see them go.

The stories in this collection have captivated me in the same ways. They are unique to India but they are universal to all of us. From the self-mutilation in “Primeval” that I will never be able to expunge from my mind, to the smell of burning books in “The Five Windows,” to the heart- wrenching revelations of a condemned young woman moments before her execution, along with the unspoken and timely themes that accompany them, Raja Sinha has left me haunted.

Even so, I was eager to turn the page and peer through the next glass, following along with the author’s appraisals and inquiries into life, culture, society and survival. May you be moved by his investigations at least half as much as me.

Jeffrey Stanley

Fulbright-Nehru Scholar

New York University

Tagore and Whitman at ICCR Kolkata

On 4/25/19 I was in a show at ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) Kolkata performing selections from Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel-winning “Gitanjali” poetry collection in English while my counterpart Indrani Majumder performed them in Bengali. I ended with a selection from 19th century US poet Walt Whitman‘s “Song of Myself” as it always reminds me of Tagore. Their shared search for the divine in the everyday seems to make them a perfect pairing. Above is a short excerpt from the show.

My Indian Film Debut

byomkesh
Anirban Bhattacharya as Kolkata detective Byomkesh Bakshi on Hoichoi.

Today I had my film debut and I’m thrilled it’s in an Indian flick. I was honored that accomplished director Abhijit Choudhury, whose current HoiChoi (think Bengali Netflix) series Astey, Ladies rocked my world, asked if I’d do him a favor and play a British officer in his new feature film, a period drama entitled Maanbhanjan adapted from Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Giribala.” Really he was doing me the favor because it turns out he’s shooting a historical film set in the 1870s against the backdrop of the nascent Bengali theatre scene which is exactly one of my research areas.

I’m not going to give away the entire plot but suffice it to say they had done their homework and recreated it spot on. My hat’s off to the set designers, choreographer, director and the whole crew. The 1870s saw the first productions of Dinabandhu Mitra’s controversial (for the British) play Nil Darpan (literally “Blue Mirror,” in this case the blue referring to nil darpan coverindigo), which held a mirror up to the gross mistreatment of poor indigo farmers. I won’t go into detail here, but it led to an amazing turn of events and other protest plays culminating in the 1876 passage of the Dramatic Performances Control Act which was only ever enforced by the British against Indian plays.

In my obsession with this time period, and having visited what’s left of Kolkata’s old theatres and perused hundreds of old theatrical advertisements, articles and photos at this point, I have often wished I could go back in time and see the real productions. Tonight on set I got a glimpse of what that might be like. We were shooting in an old playhouse recreating what would have been a typical night at a Bengali theatre, opening with a mythological drama (in this case a story from the life of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha), then a long wait for the audience while the set was changed for the next play, and then a social drama, in this case Nil Darpan.

So here I am watching actors in period clothing doing scenes from Radha-Krishna, then Nil Darpan, while an “audience” of actors in 19th century period attire sat watching and reacting to it. I played a British officer sitting with my wife and our British friends in the front row becoming highly offended and eventually enraged by what I saw onstage. I’m stopping there regarding the plot.

The biggest thrill for me was getting to share the screen with a major star, Anirban Bhattacharya, who is known for many award-winning stage and film roles but he’ll always be HoiChoi Byomkesh to me. Byomkesh is India’s answer to Sherlock Holmes, the stories written by Sharadindu Bandhopadhay and set in pre-Independence Calcutta. I’ve been a fan for several years, have read all the stories, seen I think all of the movie adaptations and all of the HoiChoi episodes. And this was long before I knew I’d not only be meeting Mr. Bhatttacharya but performing alongside him.

At one point I said to a fellow actor who seemed unaware of who he was, “That guy’s a famous actor.” She replied that famous people didn’t impress her.   I said, “Yes but he’s famous for a reason. He’s famous because he’s a terrific actor. One of the finest in India.”

She thought for a moment. “What was his name again?” came her response as she whipped out her phone to Google him. You should have seen me gushing at him between takes pumping his hand up and down saying, “I’m a big fan. I’m aware of who you are. It’s an honor to work with you.”

One more day of shooting for me later this week in which I get to have a face-off with his character. Suffice it to say I’m brushing up on my British accent.