Acharya and Abala

Recap: As Ronny goes to Giridih to hunt for locations, Pragya cajoles Bobby to accompany her to her mother’s ancestral home in Ranchi, ostensibly to help improve her diction. And so things pass and there are walks in the woods till Ronny returns and springs a surprise

By DEVAPRIYA ROY
  • Published 9.09.18
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Recap: As Ronny goes to Giridih to hunt for locations, Pragya cajoles Bobby to accompany her to her mother’s ancestral home in Ranchi, ostensibly to help improve her diction. And so things pass and there are walks in the woods till Ronny returns and springs a surprise.

Illustration: Suman Choudhury

Less than a hundred kilometres from Ranchi, there still lived in the surrounding forests of the Chotanagpur Plateau men and women who were at war with the Indian state. Their manifesto of revolution was designed to help — or hinder — ordinary members of the various local tribes (the permutations and combinations of alignments were complex, nuanced and ever-changing), depending on which side of the fence one was on, at any given time. Most people, however, had finally come to agree upon one thing: the adivasis were, indisputably, the original inhabitants of the land. The early waves of settlers, though, the ones who had arrived before the British or at around the same time, and who now owned land and businesses in these parts, harped on their rights constantly. But for the first time in a century or more, their voices had an uncertain edge, a silvery weakness, even as they hotly debated the new “all outsiders out!” battle cry of radicals wherever they went.

Swapnapuri, the old family home of Shaarani Sen, however, seemed entirely unaffected by the vocabulary of justice that had swept through the rest of the countryside. Conversations in its dark, cosy rooms had remained the same: Calcutta versus The Provinces. Menus too. (After all, who knew how to slow-cook country chicken or goat better than the tribals?) And as for the decor, the stuffed deer heads had gone through various cycles of appreciation and revulsion, to enter a new age of Instagram celebrity — #throwback — and, in any case, there were no budgets for any manner of major renovation to be undertaken. Other than the addition of a few air conditioners, the house had been kept up precisely as it had been for the last five decades, by dedicated retainers since Sen’s parents’ time.

The cook and the gardener were under the command of the redoubtable Montu’r-ma, a bossy once-stunning Munda woman. She still lived in situ with her extended family, whose highlight was the eponymous Montu — not her son but her grandson. She cared for Shaarani Sen and her siblings dearly. If the old people of Sen’s generation offended the younger ones with a thoughtless comment or two — “Arrey, since when are you people on Facebook?” or “If only you people had managed to expose haariya…” — the youngsters allowed these to slide in deference to shared history and a certainty that these encounters would not last more than a week or two at a time. Also, Montu knew his grandmother would not hesitate to slap him if he displayed any cheek.

The last few weeks had been more interesting than usual, though. Montu might be averse to intoxicants, but his close friend, Mutroo, ran a thriving business supplying to impoverished college students of Ranchi, and so he had no trouble getting casks of superior desi for Pragya didi and her new friend. Montu had been sent by his grandmother to trail them as they went for their walks in the sal forest (Nani, forever suspicious of the criminals of the area, was worried Pragya might get kidnapped!). And Pragya didi’s new friend — the one with that weird boyish name, Bobby — had quickly become Montu’s friend, too. She even promised to buy a life insurance policy from him.

Today, though, there was a great deal of coming and going — annoying people from Calcutta who looked right through him — but also this famous actor, someone his grandmother loved and was cooking up a storm for. Montu didn’t care much for Bengali cinema. Now, if Pragya didi became a big star and made some Bollywood films, that would be something.

Thinking his thoughts and wondering what sort of time frame would be enough for Pragya didi to get a chance to work with Ranbir Kapoor, Montu sat under the jamun tree outside the porch, watching YouTube and waiting for his grandmother to finish clearing up after lunch, paying no attention to the passionate voice spilling out of the half-open windows of the sitting room.

*

“So, what I am trying to say is,” Ronny was explaining ardently to the assembly, “that now we have a multi-layered narrative. There is Trina, the returnee granddaughter, estranged from her American husband who revisits the story of her grandmother, Mondira, and by extension, the story of her brilliant grandfather, Srijon Shekhar. But the tempestuous narrative of Srijon and Mondira is counterbalanced by the story of Acharya and Abala.”

“That’s a substantial addition to the script,” Bobby said, her face thunderous.

The rest of the audience, sated by the exquisite lunch, wore contentment on their countenances. Judhajit, who was going to play Srijon Shekhar, seemed only mildly piqued. Pragya, Bobby realised, looking at her impassive face, had probably already known this. “Damn you, Pragya,” Bobby muttered in her head, “You should have told me!”

Ronny ignored her. His eyes, radiant with a fundamentalist’s zeal, were now fixed on Babluda. One of the most experienced thespians of Bengal, Madhusudan Manna was invariably called Babluda by all and sundry. He used to joke that when his son was born, he lived in half-horror that the baby would call him Babluda too. While he had done his share of memorable arthouse cinema, his first love had always been theatre and he chose his films carefully. No wonder, thought Bobby, that Ronny was wooing him with such care.

“Recently I’ve been reading about Acharya and Abala. Babluda, you would be the perfect J.C. Bose. He has never been portrayed in Indian cinema — you’d be the first to essay this role.”

Babluda’s face retained its mischievous gleam.

“Meanwhile: Abala Bose. One of those highly underrated Renaissance women of Bengal. Did you know, Bobby, that Abala had been the first Indian woman to study medicine? Because the colleges in Calcutta refused her entry, she travelled all the way south. The story of their marriage and life together is fascinating too. In the many years that Bose refused to take his salary from Presidency College — where he was doing pathbreaking research, practically unsupported — he and Abala lived in poverty, something that must have stretched her patience and idealism thin.”

“Why did he refuse his salary?” Shaarani Sen asked Ronny.

“The British professors were paid double or triple of what the Indians were paid. JCB wouldn’t stand for such racial discrimination and refused his salary until the management took notice.”

Despite her views on Ronny’s addition, Bobby could not help herself, “Who do you have in mind for Abala Bose?”
“Well,” said Ronny, “I have an extraordinary actress in mind. But she’s refused to act for the last 20 years. I’m going to take my chances, though, and ask. Shaaranidi; will you consider it?”

A frisson of electricity energised the room. Pragya looked up at her mother eagerly and said, “Please, Ma. I would really like that.”

In her head, Bobby had to admit that this was a masterstroke. If there was any way the producers could be urged to wait around while Ronnyda rewrote his masterpiece, it was the promise of this: Shaarani Sen’s comeback. But all Shaarani Sen said was, “Let’s continue the narration, shall we?”

*

Meanwhile, Mimi Dasgupta, Pragya’s cousin and currently a student at a fancy New England liberal arts school, sauntered out to the porch, arm-in-arm with her partner, Clay. “Montuda,” said Mimi, her electric pink shorts a sunburst of colour against the faded pillars and browning grass. “Didi says you can get us safe haariya.”

Montu nodded, “Today, I can’t though. I’m busy. Maybe tomorrow.”

“That’s fine,” said Mimi. Her oval, nut brown face was framed by a shock of curly hair. Clay, on the other hand, was pale and blond and deeply polite. He was learning Hindi in college — that’s how invested he was in India (and Mimi, possibly) — and practised it on unsuspecting Indians. Before coming to Jharkhand, he had been reading up about the Naxal movement. 

Clay shot a meaningful glance at Mimi. She now sat down next to Montu and asked, “Montuda, are you a Maoist?”
Montu looked at Mimi and then at Clay. His light brown eyes were dancing in amusement. He ran his fingers jauntily through his hair and slipped his phone back into his pocket. “Would you like it if I were one?” he asked.

(To be continued)