Kakababu choley gelen
by Udayan Chattopadhyay
That the passing of Sunil Gangopadhyay came as a shock to many – despite his age and health – is a reflection of his being, till his last Puja season during which he died – the most prolific and recognizable mainstream writer in post-1947 Indian Bengal.
I will not dwell on literary critiques; I am not qualified. While, like most NRI-kids, I was very much aware of who he was growing up (our parents would always pass around his latest book after a trip to Calcutta) I was hardly able to delve into his tomes. In that I shared a disconnect with an increasing number of middle class Calcutta kids more proficient (at least reading) in English and even Hindi than in their parents’ tongue. I saw the films and serials people like Satyajit made from his works, and as English-translations started becoming available, I trawled through his seminal works such as Purba Paschim, Shei Shomoy and Prothom Alo. But that doesn’t form the basis of my bond.
Sunil, in his life and work, encapsulated the evolution of West Bengal – a post-partition entity, amputated from a greater whole that lived partly in the imagination, and which struggled immensely with the trauma of mass migration while also dealing with the tumultuous rise of the Left and a rapid and humiliating fall from national and international grace. Elements of all of this came out in his works; not necessarily as the core subject as with that of figures such as Ritwik Ghatak or Mrinal Sen, but in the background while middle class figures got on with their daily lives, much as in Satyajit’s Calcutta trilogy, one of which was taken from one of his works. Of course, this was not all he wrote about, but for an urban Calcutta focused audience, he was the literary equivalent of other post 1947 icons that were purely West Bengali – such as Salil, Soumitra, or Uttam – who didn’t belong to a different era such as Sarat Chandra or Nazrul, or who weren’t claimed by a global crowd such as Satyajit or Amartya. So when we did get to appreciate his work – via a scratchy VHS tape or a flawed translation, he reflected the stories our parents lived and breathed and privately agonized over – what it meant to be from where they were from, whether they were now in Calcutta, London or Boston. In this, his place in the West Bengal psyche is not dissimilar to that of Humayun Ahmed’s in Bangladesh; with a sad irony these two icons and friends passed away within months of each other.
Born in Faridpur and migrating to what had become another country as a child, Sunil’s existence mirrored that of a huge portion of urban West Bengal after 1947 (at one point in the 1950s, more than 50% of Calcutta’s Bengali population was “refugee”). His was a demographic that struggled with catastrophic economic displacement, as well as extreme resentment from an entrenched incumbent population that a lottery had placed on the right side of the border, both groups painfully finding a means of co-existence in the following decades. It is an experience he was relatively quiet about in public, but spoke of frequently in private. That, together with his obvious passion for all things Bengali and a progressive political consciousness, led to a strong interest, bordering on obsession, with what was to become the independent state of Bangladesh. As an atheist with communist leanings, he struggled with the events leading to partition till his last days, and frequently expressed frustration with those who could not share his fascination with the subject.
This passion was sincere and constructive; he was one of the earliest Indians to take an interest in cultural developments in Dhaka as early as the 1960s, before it became cool to do so for diversity or with an eye to a lucrative potential market. As a young correspondent for Anandabazar, he was instrumental in mobilizing Calcutta opinion as events unfolded o paar in 1970-1 prior to the Indian government or the world community becoming involved. In the late 1970s, he started – and led throughout the next decade – Calcutta’s own Ekushe February commemorations, until this found a wider sustainable audience.
He regularly bemoaned the lack of reciprocity of respect and affection for Bangladeshi writers in West Bengal, and talked of how he was embarrassed at his own popularity across the border while his friends and those he admired – people like Shamsur Rahman, Humayun Ahmed, Al Mahmud and Imdadul Huq Milon, were barely recognized beyond a tiny cultural circle. He regularly lobbied both the West Bengal and Indian governments to lift restrictive policies that limited flow of Bangladeshi media. He followed the careers of those Bangladeshis who reached out to him as a mentor and personally arranged for many to be published in Anandabazar and Desh. He always asked people he knew going back and forth to bring back the latest output; when I met him once in Calcutta after not having previously told him of a recent Dhaka trip (I did not think our weak connection warranted this) he chastised me: “I could have introduced you to so many brilliant people; you could have brought me back some books”.
His Bangladesh focus was often frustrating to both his admirers and critics and he frequently came out the worse for it. He wrote an effusive editorial congratulating Khaleda Zia on her UN speech soon after she became Prime Minister in the early 90s, writing of his joy of sitting in the visitors’ gallery and hearing Bangla reverberating among world leaders; cynical eye on his biggest market observed some; sincerity drowned in naivety noted those who were closer to him. Khaleda’s entourage publicly mocked him in response, scoffing that no Bangladeshi needed the endorsement of a 2nd rate writer from a regional non-entity; this incident caused him much pain. (Though Sunil, wherever he is today, might be tickled by the irony of Khaleda Zia’s lengthy condolence message at his death pre-empting those of Sheikh Hasina, Mamata Banerjee, and even his friend, the Bengali President of India.) In another messy epsiode, his vocal and active support for Taslima Nasreen from the early 90s right up to a very public split a few years ago – whatever the reality of the situation – had him emerging humiliated and resentful.
We see in a lot of the tributes pouring in, as expected, that we have lost a pillar of Bengali literature and so forth. But it should be noted that we have also lost a passionate witness to Bengal’s bifurcation, who, in the decades that followed, made sincere efforts to build links without getting into the thorny politics that ultimately frustrate attempts to (re)connect. By his own admission, bridges he tried to build had a largely one way flow; privately he acknowledged that in addition to communalism and class prejudice among some of Calcutta’s Bengalis, behind the apparent indifference was a lot of pain and resentment that meant for many, it was not possible to look east. He was excited about vehicles such as Youtube to bypass the lack of availability of Bangladeshi material in Calcutta, and till his last days was personally working on addressing the imbalance; he had led a delegation to the new West Bengal government shortly after the 2011 elections with another request ease restrictions. He ultimately believed that Calcutta’s middle class becoming familiar with the sounds and words of Dhaka would trickle up to help resolve issues like water sharing and border problems.
I fear that the next generation of cultural figures in Calcutta is too divorced from the reality of a greater Bengali world, and lacks sufficient interest in Bangladesh, except as a destination to offload output that does not have a sustainable domestic audience. It certainly lacks the familiarity and connections that people like Sunil spent a lifetime building. The loss to Bengali literature comes not only with the end of Sunil’s writing, but in the dwindling nodes of connectivity, particularly on our supposedly more progressive, open-minded and culturally dynamic (as we like telling ourselves) side of the border.