New Delhi: "It has been a blessed ride. Through the contrasting landscapes of experiences, I have learnt to see others better, to respect their otherness as we co-travel through this transition," says seasoned actress Susmita Mukherjee, the "Kitty" of the TV serial "Karamchand" of her second book "BAANJH - Incomplete Lives of Complete Women" (Readomania Publishing).
These are 11 hard-hitting stories that take the readers on a journey into the world of women from the society's fringes as well as the high echelons - with entitled husbands and regressive labels; with high-power jobs and insecurities; with obsessions and mental issues; with open views on marriage and divorce; with oppressive employers driving them to the hilt; where lines of morality blur between the girlfriend and the wife.
Susmita makes you gasp, ponder, empathise and look at life like never before. The stories reiterate the fact that a woman's worth is much more than just the labels that the society bestows on her.
How did the book come about?
"When a female is unable to conceive, she is called Baanjh, sterile, incomplete, whereas in most cases infertility arises out of man's sexual dysfunction. If that be the case should society label him as a 'baanjh purush'? If society has to keep their crippling labels, atleast let it be impartial to both sexes," Susmita told IANS.
"The collection has been germinating over 40 years of scribblings, in various times and spaces. You can call it the lazy train ride of my life where many people came in and left. Since my interactions have been mostly with women and I was attentive to their soul cry, maybe I became a keeper of their secrets. Through it I saw a pattern of feeling incomplete, helpless as if trapped, wriggling under a giant invisible net called 'society'," she added.
Susmita expands on this in the Introduction, in which she also goes back in time to explain what has shaped her as an individual.
"When I was doing my masters in English literature from the prestigious Miranda House, I was a self-respecting Marxist, Leftist, communist, not knowing the difference but believing that the street theatre we were doing under the tutelage of Badal Sircar would bring in the revolution and destroy the dirty capitalists. We wore kurtas on lehengas, our jholas were stocked with Capstan cigarettes and we drank a lot of tea," she writes in the book.
"The revolution we were hoping for did not happen. During the Emergency, we were thus performing but ran away when the police gave us a chase. Thereafter, we returned to the safety of our parental fold. Subsequently, I joined the National School of Drama, and into a spanking new life, where I was harrowed for not knowing Hindi. I flinch when I think of how I shrugged my shoulders, American style, and walked a hippy walk while playing a village belle, Malika, in Kalidas's 'Ashad ka Ek Din'. After that, I hired the services of an Urdu master to teach me the national language," Susmita writes.
She landed in Mumbai on a hot summer day of 1983 and then just about drowned in the giant monsoon deluge of that year, surviving to become yet another wannabe struggler in the arms of the great city.
"We had no homes, no phones, no food, no friends, only a mad passion to expand oneself in art, whatever that meant! I remember even becoming a waitress at Prithvi cafeteria because then dinner was on the house. I have done over a hundred movies in multiple languages and over fifty TV shows where I have played diverse characters. I purposely did not opt for being the heroine, or comedian, or vamp. I believed then as I do now, that I had parts of each in me and my journey was to shine a torch on them through the roles I was offered," Susmita writes.
Secretly, she always aspired to be a writer but was uncertain about changing gears due to financial insecurities. Besides which, she was helping her multi-talented husband Raja Bundela set up his media house. She was also mothering two sons but in the dead of the night, she would be ghost writing scripts and screenplays for the plethora of TV shows that their company, Prayaas Production, was engaged in.
"I never got acknowledged but the joy of seeing my words and thoughts come alive on screen gave me a huge high. I did get an NFDC award for my original screenplay for "NATI", which I converted into a play and had a humbling success with it. It was under the aegis of my theatre group called 'Naatak Company' which I had formed in 1988 with two of my NSD batchmates. The company exists to date and in 2018, after a considerable hiatus, I revived it with my original solo play Naribai where I play 26 characters. The same year my maiden novel 'Mee & Juhibaby' was published."
Thus did "BAANJH - Incomplete Lives of Complete Women" come about.
"All this while, I have been collecting a lot of my observations and thoughts in the form of story ideas. I have played multiple roles, both on and off-screen -- first as a Delhi Bengali to being a Mumbaikar and finally a Bundelkhandi bahu. All the characters of BAANJH spoke to me from the depths of the people that I encountered: whiffs of conversations, wafts of stories, echoes, shadows, whispers. I've enjoyed meeting and observing women from all strata, highly wealthy and successful right down to menials, sex workers, migrant workers, middle-class women, village women, small-town women, the ordinary, nameless, faceless, yet each vibrating with the trembling potential of power and compassion," Susmita writes.
All power to her!