A last encounter with the Bengali author Sunil Gangopadhyay, who died recently.
The intervening night between ashtami and navami — the eighth and ninth day respectively of Durga Puja — is when Bengalis living in Kolkata pull out all stops. Ashtami is considered the most auspicious of Puja days, and navami the final day before the idols are taken for immersion; so on that night, Bengalis walk the extra mile, often literally, to soak in the festive spirit before it slips out of their hands for another year. They pandal-hop until wee hours, gorge on street food, and generally make a lot of noise (hoi-choi, as they say).
This Puja, the crispy autumn night when ashtami was melting into navami, I found myself at Maddox Square, one of the South Kolkata pandals with snob value — places to see and be seen at. At 1.30 a.m., the Maddox Square pandal resembled a college campus celebrating its cultural fest: young men and women sat in circles, chatting and smoking and boy-hawkers sold newspaper sheets for people to sit on. Durga and her four children stared at the crowd silently: noise was the presiding deity here.
Back on the road, it got noisier as the car now pushed its way through the crowds towards Ekdalia, my next stop. It was as if a cricket match had just got over and spectators were pouring out of the stadium: people cheerfully walked in hordes and young men mindlessly blew vuvuzelas. The Puja celebrations at Ekdalia are just as famous as that of Maddox Square, if not more, but one look at the river of revellers gushing into the venue and I gave up the idea.
As I motioned the driver to move on, a childish thought crossed my mind: “I wish I was Sunil Gangopadhyay. It must be so easy for him to see these famous Pujas; he just has to walk out of his home.” (I had spent an hour with the writer at his ninth-floor flat in Ekdalia only months before.) Little did I know that precisely at that moment the writer was actually breathing his last at his home — just a few metres away from the spot my car had halted. In other words, I was almost by his bedside when he died; only, I didn’t know.
I learnt of his death only the next morning when my father, who lives in Kanpur but religiously watches Bengali channels, called me.
“Did I wake you up?” he asked.
“No,” I lied, “what’s up?”
“Sunil Ganguly died last night. He passed away around 1.30. Didn’t you interview him for your book?”
I jumped out of bed, switched on my netbook and copied the 59-minute interview on a pen drive to be on the safe side. The interview, which was the very first I recorded when I began researching my book on Kolkata, was now more precious than gold. As the file transferred, memories went back to that pleasant Sunday morning when I met the most famous living writer of Bengal. Sunil Gangopadhyay was already 78 then, but didn’t look any older than 65, clad in a crisp blue kurta and white pyjamas and surrounded by people who had come for the Sunday durbar.
It was evident that he didn’t know most of them — they had come seeking some obligation or the other, such as a foreword for a book or a job at the Sahitya Akademi, of which he was the president — but like a true bhadralok he was patient with them all. I had to wait for my turn. When it finally came, he lit up the Marlboro he had been holding between his fingers for long and got talking.
To begin with, he told me that Kolkata, where he’d lived ever since he was a child, was the friendliest of cities in India: “If you live in Kolkata for two or three days, you will find nothing to write home about, but if you live here for a month, you will discover the warmth in the people.”
How did he become a writer? “When I first fell in love,” he gave out a childlike laugh, seeking approval from the gathered audience. “I was 14 or 15 when I first fell in love, but it did not work out. The inspiration for writing comes from grief, you see.”
He was still a struggling wordsmith, whiling away time with fellow poet Shakti Chattopadhyay at the Coffee House, when Allen Ginsberg came looking for him. “He taught us so many things. He told us that poetry is a 24/7 occupation. Shakti tried to do it for a while, but I could not do that; I had to do odd jobs because I had a family to support.”
Every now and then, he and Shakti and some others would just hop into a train and travel, ticketless, to the jungles of Bihar — an experience that was immortalised in Aranyer Din Ratri, which was made into a film by Satyajit Ray. “But Ray made a mistake in the film. He asked me how does mahua, the country wine, taste. I told him, ‘Why don’t you go and taste it?’ He said, ‘No, no.’ I told him, ‘If you don’t drink it, how can you describe the experience?’ If you drink mahua, you become exuberant, but in the film, his characters go quiet after drinking — that is a mistake he made.”
During the hour that I spent with him, I also got to take a look at his study: shelves stacked with books and cassettes and a stunning view of Kolkata’s urban jungle. In the kitchen, fish was being fried. As I left, I asked him the standard farewell question: what was he working on at present?
“I am planning to write something on the Ramayana, a new interpretation of Rama’s character,” he said, “You see, I love to read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Recently it struck me: are Luv and Kush Rama’s sons? There are some clues in the original text that Sita got pregnant by Ravana.”
I do not know whether he has finished that work, but he died the day before Vijaya Dashami, when Rama’s victory over Ravana is celebrated across the country. For three days Kolkata did not get to read about Sunil Gangopadhyay’s death or funeral: all the newspapers were shut for Puja.
Keywords: Sunil Gangopadhyay