It could have been a screenplay, I wondered, reading the first story of the collection Mistress of Melodies: Stories of Courtesans and Prostituted Women by Nabendu Ghosh (Speaking Tiger Books, 2020).
Ghosh was a screenplay writer, having to his credit movies including Devdas, Sujata, Majhli Didi, Abhimaan and Teesri Kasam. Writing was one among his many talents. Mistress of Melodies is a collection of six short stories about the lives of tawaifs and baijis in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Edited by Ratnottama Sengupta, Ghosh’s daughter, the stories have been translated from Bengali into English by Sengupta, Mitali Chakravarty (Anchor) and Padmaja Punde (It Happened One Night), except for the titular story, which was the first draft of a screenplay originally written in English by the author.
Rekindling the imagination of the time and era gone by, Ghosh narrates stories of love and lovers, deceit and betrayal, and parting and longing. Turning every page of this book transported me to mid-18th century to early 19th century Calcutta, and I couldn’t agree more with Muzaffar Ali, who argues that “society was culturally more evolved, the courtesan was the most alive source of enrichment.” Introducing his collaborator’s work, Ali mentions that Ghosh “takes you deep into an emotion that has been the pride of the cinema of Bengal, the cinema of realism and the romance of culture.”
It is undoubtedly part of Ghosh’s oeuvre, but where he departs from many of his contemporaries is when he portrays his courtesans, sex workers and tawaifs as a whole. He steers away from this done-to-death pity-seeking portrayal of these-are-humans-too prostitutes in literature. He imagines or recreates the courtesans as they are, with no divide between their profession, craft and everyday life — legitimising their living in ways a few writers tend to do.
The first, Market Price, is a story of deceit. Chhaya is a widow who elopes with her new husband in search of a new life, but he turns out to be a conman. The story moves deftly in frames, the details of their living and the intimacy between the two are sketched as if for a movie.
In Dregs, we witness an unusual story of a tram conductor who observes a call girl — Basana — daily and hates her ‘clan’. Out of sheer anger against her profession, he wants to tell everyone who she is. In many failed attempts to out her, the arc of his bittersweet life as a tram conductor in a colonial setup, traversing through the World War II, the Bengal famine and Independence is in stark contrast to, what he thinks, an easy assent of a call girl. She became a wife because of her looks and this newfound respectability in society merits the conductor to respect that, too. But he refuses to give that and, once almost risks losing his job, secures it only by apologising.
Later, we find Basana dying as most disadvantaged die. Helpless. Hungry. Homeless. The tram conductor learns it when Basana’s boy enters the tram. He is disgusted once again when he sees ‘Basana’s tribe’ growing in numbers — concerned and fuming with anger he yells at a girl for the ticket.
Song of a Sarangi is the longest among all stories in this book, but the length is justified given that it covers generations of a culture that provided entertainment to people in times when there was no Netflix to chill.
The sense of sight and sound in the enigmatic world of the baijis some time after the Sepoy Mutiny is an appropriate portrayal of the time. Focusing on the ‘nath utarna’ ceremony — synonymous to marrying in the tawaif-world — and the interplay of desires, Ghosh sketches the scene among the wealthy in Calcutta back in the day. We also witness the desire to meet with her first man of a baiji, who later is confronted with a shocking revelation, in which she loses her all only to meet with the man who truly loved her all along the way, without the baiji realising it.
In It Happened One Night, a sex worker is confronted with the everyday rejection that one faces in the profession, where the outer appearance and youth determine your earnings. Another, Tagar, finds herself here after losing a family. And in the titular story Mistress of Melodies, Ghosh explores the love affair of a wealthy man, Nimai Sen, with a baiji Gauhar Jaan.
Khushnaseeb zamaney mein kaun hai Gauhar ke siwa?
Sab kuchh Allah ne de rakha hai shauhar ke siwa…
— Gauhar Jaan in Mistress of Melodies
Nimai is arrested by Gauhar’s stunning looks, a premonition to a Devdas-like story, which, in fact, does end at a tragic note. I hope these stories linger in your hearts as much as they did in mine.