Phoolsunghi – The Scent of a Text

Phoolsunghi – The Scent of a Text

Gautam Choubey and Francesca Orsini in conversation with Jatindra Kumar Nayak with a reading by Manoj Bajpai

“Babu Sahib! You must have heard of a phoolsunghi--the flower-pecker--yes? It can never be held captive in a cage. It sucks nectar from a flower and then flies on to the next.”

  • Pandey Kapil, Phoolsunghi

Given the hegemonic cloud of  Western languages, the Bhojpuri tongue appears to be caged. Literary historian and author Gautam Choubey breaks that entrapment by bringing us the first-ever translation into English of a Bhojpuri novel – Phoolsunghi. The novel throws light onto a world we know very little about, especially with respect to its rich literary space.

The enlightening conversation on Phoolsunghi on Jaipur Literature Festival 2021 began with actor Manoj Bajpai’s enthralling recitation of an excerpt from the book. After the ten-minute dramatic narration, the stalwart actor urged the audience to read the novel since it had now become more accessible and would help our rooted culturesto flourish. In praise of the renowned poet Mahendra Misir, who also features as a character in the book, Bajpai remarked that his life was timelessly inspirational and revolutionary and his name was taken with immense pride in the history of Bihar.

Noted translator of classic Odia Novels, Jatindra Nayak, turned to Choubey and asked his reason for picking this particular book over so many others to translate. To which the writer keenly talked of how his childhood was always strewn with Bhojpuri literature, thanks to his grandfather’s repute in that arena. He then went on to echo the story of most readers when he mentioned a certain senior of his who had prodded him towards this beautiful book saying- “you have to read this”. Besides these co-incidental trajectories, he also stated that the cinematic appeal of the narrative along with its courtesan culture, crimes, dacoity and court cases had lured him to do more for the novel.

Then the limelight fell on Francesca Orsini, a professor of South Asian Literature at SOAS, University of London, seeking her personal response to the book. She was tickled pink to say that it was her plain, bold curiosity that tied her to the book. “I’m not a Bhojpuri literature specialist by any stretch of the imagination,”she said, stating this pursuit had been obligated solely by prying! She was most interested in and zealous about the manner in which Phoolsunghi transcribes the oral tradition onto paper. “This novel for me is about the power of songs.”

The trio then talked about the contentious notion of the moral gaze that had forced itself into the literary circle for ages. Professor Francesca began with how the moral gaze deterredus from viewing tawaif performances as a way of life, a phenomenon that had cultured the arts. To this comment, Choubey highlighted how the marginal positioning of the characters had necessitated the need to remove a bunch of songs for the tawaifs. For instance, Mahendra Misir, who had produced most of such songs, was also involved in a counterfeiting racket. Thus, his character in the book invited another kind of moral gaze. In order to allow the golden attributes of such characters to shine out, certain elements had had to be censored.  The group then agreed on the problematic character of the moral gaze when Choubey further elucidated his point of view and tagged the gaze as “mysterious and inscrutable”.

The conversation meandered its way into the temporal and spatial expanses of the story, the metaphor of rivers and cages, the woes and blessings of the Bihari migrant and the aspirational nostalgia that the novel fosters. 

Such times and vibes are truly unmissable for a literature enthusiast!