Recessing into Nostalgia: A Review of Nabanita Sengupta’s The Ghumi Days

Review by Basudhara Roy


The Ghumi Days

Juggernaut Books, 2021
Short Stories
Nabanita Sengupta
Pages 91 | Kindle Price ₹ 52.50 INR

 

What does a story bring to the world? Among the many things that a well-told story does - engage, enthral, inspire, instruct - that which stands out is the story’s ability and generosity to offer an alternate home to our imagination, a place, however briefly, to nest and reconcile ourselves with life and time. With short stories that constellate around a particular geographical region, the sense of homing-in is stronger. Gridded in story after story by the same locale, encountering a familiar set of characters, and being impelled by a dependable narrator, the reader is apt to drop her guard, surrender to the idiosyncrasies of this fictional world, and allow herself to inhabit the stories as one inhabits the recesses of a loved landscape. Nabanita Sengupta’s eighteen tender stories in The Ghumi Days impact one similarly as they beckon the reader away from the chaos of ICT, capitalism, consumerism, politics, and the environmental crisis into the leisured motions of a communal way of life that is fast fading, even in sub-urban and rural pockets of India.

 

Ghumi, in Sengupta’s fiction, is a small industrial town located near Hazaribagh in the Chota Nagpur Plateau. Dominated by the factory around which the town has sprung, the lives of the inhabitants of Ghumi are structured, both by its natural beauty and its strict industrial regime:

 

Flanked by a river and a hill,, Ghumi was as fresh and vibrant as a teenager living a life of bounty as well as discipline. The residents were tied together in a disciplinarian regime, strictly maintained by the regular factory shifts. Since each and everyone drew their livelihood from the factory and its corresponding offices, they had to follow the pattern of life set by it. […] In the first few months of her unsupervised domesticity, away from both sets of parents and in the land of her husband’s work, the factory siren took up the role of the mother-in-law, ensuring an order amidst the desired and novel anarchy of this new phase of their conjugality. (‘A Night too Long’)

 

Modest and enterprising, Ghumi is a cosmopolitan space – multicultural, multilingual and liberal in a way that industrial centres with a diverse settler workforce, usually are. It is also small and secluded and therefore, close-knit, and provincial. Cut off from the wider world and contoured by the factory’s unchanging routine, life in Ghumi seldom ventures out of the zone of familiarity. Also, with everyone drawing their livelihood from the same source, there is a synchronicity of lifestyles here that leads to a warm communality among its residents. Close to nature on the one hand and economically self-reliant on the other, Ghumi offers an ideal site of anchorage in the world, undisturbed by poverty, hunger, corruption, ostentation, and the rat-race for dominion over scarce resources and opportunities.

 

This does not, however, render the place a complete utopia. Sengupta does summon ripples of crisis upon Ghumi’s surface. Young girls are not always safe from lecherous eyes (‘Serpent in Eden’), friendship and trust may not always be reciprocated with integrity (‘Trouble at the Workshop’), timber thieves are decimating the forest cover around the township (‘The Threat note’), professional decisions may lead to personal insecurity and danger (‘The Gossipers’) and the threat of lay off and unemployment loom large over the workforce (‘Lay off’). But Sengupta’s characteristic fictional method is to keep the crisis at bay through timely intervention of the community and without allowing it to penetrate its core of trust, resilience and self-esteem. In story after story, crisis and tragedy that lurk around the corners of the narrative, are deftly averted to lead to a satisfactory resolution and a reassertion of Ghumi’s benevolence.

 

Significant to Sengupta’s focus as a narrator is Ghumi’s essential strength and its potential to offer an alternate viewpoint and way of life that reclaim space for individuality, humane bonds, empathy and holistic growth. Description is her forte as is keen observation and she is at her best in narrative sections that take in both the place and its people in one meditative sweep. Consider the following lines from ‘@Nostalgia’:

 

…Ghumi was not exactly real. It was almost like a simulation for the real thing – like those driving lessons you know you can take on your computer screen before the actual driving? It was like that. Rough edges of dangers padded off in a very large extended family. That place was my whole world and a place that I had to leave for the real one because Ghumi did not hold back anyone. It trained you, taught you, helped you with important inputs for sustainability but ultimately let you go.

 

A distinct lyrical quality emanates from Sengupta’s best passages in this collection as she goes about reclaiming and reinstating what has been lost – “the days of large-hearted people, living in homes with large windows and even larger balconies and sleeping in large beds”, a “freely flowing largeness of existence, not necessarily reflected always in their material possessions.” (‘Table Tale’) A disciplined, communal way of living as against that alienated haphazardness of contemporary life is essential to her social vision. People can grow only in a common soil and with each other, Sengupta seems to say. Such communal nurturance is especially important for the younger generation to bequeath to them values for a harmonious and sustainable existence. Many of these stories, therefore, weave themselves around a pre-adolescent girl, Raya, and her family. The first and last stories of the collection are especially significant to this thematic frame. The first story describes a three and a half-year old Raya who feels lost in Ghumi’s ‘babble of tongues’ because she has recently been displaced from her linguistic environment in Bengal. The terrified child is finally put to ease only when the local inhabitants get together to build a familiar linguistic home for her through the broken pieces of Bengali that they know. In the last story of the collection, a restless artist returns to his native Ghumi to be healed from rootlessness and nostalgia and to reawaken his moorings in art.

 

Life in Ghumi, as the narrator repeatedly emphasizes, is simple, steady and humdrum. Here, opportunities are limited and choices in life are few. But it is also fertile, emotive and empowered in understanding and empathy. A diverse and close-knit community teaches its young and new members to be kind, compassionate, brave and socially useful. The presence of negative forces within this world vanquished, eventually, by the forces of good, reinforces the values of humanity and social cohesion. Ghumi is a valuable place to be nurtured in and to begin from. It is also a precious place to return to. It is, most importantly, a place to be acknowledged, spoken about, recreated and celebrated in fiction in order to preserve the best of all the old-world values that inhere deep within its structures.

 

“Stories are soul vitamins,” ,” writes Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run with the Wolves. “Stories set the soul into motion, and this is particularly important where the inner life is frightened, wedged or cornered.” In a society rendered claustrophobic by social apathy, mindless acquisition, cut-throat competition and human mechanization, Ghumi offers its readers a soul vitamin, an alternate way of being and connecting with the world. It speaks for the value of small towns across the length and breadth of the country that have managed to negotiate between industrial practicality and rural ethics and which, largely, go unacknowledged in the country’s intellectual and cultural map. Offering short and deft character portraits and plots that resolve themselves into a peaceful denouement, these are stories that are saved from the brink of tragedy by an empathetic storyteller’s deep love for a place and its people. Stirring within the reader, reminiscences of the grace of Narayan, the benevolence of Murty, and the charm of Bond, Nabanita Sengupta’s The Ghumi Days will definitely find some forgotten, wistful hole in your heart and resolutely, fill it.

***

 

Bionote: Basudhara Roy is a poet, academic and faculty of English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Her latest work is featured in Madras Courier, Lucy Writers Platform, Berfrois, Gitanjali and Beyond, The Aleph Review and Yearbook of Indian English Poetry 2020-21, among others. Her recent (second) collection of poems is Stitching a Home (New Delhi: Red River, 2021).


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