With Sunil Gangopadhyay’s going away, a part of one’s education has stopped

The first time I met Sunil Gangopadhyay was at a poets’ meet a little under two decades ago in Bhopal. He was a feted writer-poet and I was still a young reporter. I was both apprehensive and eager in equal measure. Here was my chance to meet the man I had known only through his books. Of them, I must confess, I had read only a handful, notably Murmur In The Woods and East-West. A few minutes into our interaction Gangopadhyay allayed my worst fears. He was patient, no, indulgent, as I could only frame some lopsided questions.

His words were measured, his sentences punctuated by long pauses. Like a true artist, he said a little, left a lot unsaid. Then simply got up to leave, before adding, “Not to worry, young man. I am around for the next couple of days. You can ask whatever you want.”

I returned with my breath back to normal. And went to a phone booth immediately to tell folks back home in Delhi that I had interviewed Gangopadhyay. “Gangopadhyay, who,” asked my brother.

Disappointed at his ignorance, I admonished myself: Gangopadhyay was not as well-known in these parts of the country. He was principally a Bengali writer, who was accessible to others only through translations, I tried to comfort myself.

The next meeting came a good half-a-decade later. It was at New Delhi’s India International Centre. By now a weather-beaten pro, I asked him a few pointed questions. Reclining on his easy chair, he answered with ease, his equanimity barely disturbed. And happily waved me off when he felt I had exceeded my brief. “Oh, aesa nahin hota hai... (it doesn’t happen like that)” he said in Hindi, his limited expression sufficient to tell me he had no patience for intrusive queries. He was a rebel in words — written and spoken. He criticised the lack of discussion on Rabindranath Tagore. He could take a stance with respect to Taslima Nasreen too.

This time, I did not go to the phone; I quietly keyed in my interview. After all, the name Gangopadhyay did not ring too many bells in this part of the country! The article appeared a couple of days later. And lo, there was overwhelming response from the readers, many of whom had great anecdotes to relate. I was wrong again. Gangapadhyay’s fan following was not limited to any section, region or language. Of course, there had been some more translations of his works, which probably served to widen his readership.

A little later, I saw him at the Jaipur Literature Fest. There were people milling around, mostly fussing over foreign authors, many of whom, I am sure, they had not read. I was hurt at what appeared a slight towards a Bhasha author. Gangopadhyay did not mind though. “They come for some debates, some energetic exchanges,” he said, referring to book lovers at the fest. His work, tranquil as the Ganga in the plains, and as profound, could do without the attention of those looking for cascades every living moment. “You see, as authors you learn from life, from people around,” he reasoned. “Every moment in life is an education,” he added.

Then I met him, on slightly more even terms when I was a part of the jury to decide on the Best Writing On Cinema. Gangopadhyay was the chairman. Still quite respectful towards the man who was into his mid 70s then, I imagined he would have made up his mind and would probably expect fellow jury members to just play along. How wrong could I be! He opened the deliberations with just one note: let’s be fair to all. Let’s not be awed by any authors, editors, publishers. “Yes, let’s be fearless,” I added. “I would say, let’s be honest, fearlessness will follow,” he said. Needless to say, the award that year went to a first-time author!

At the conclusion of the deliberations, he extended his hand. Suitably enlightened, I went home and read Gangopadhyay’s works in a new light. I realised I had with me The Fakir, a book on Lalan Fakir, a saint on whom a movie was made too. The book had that wonderful smell of a somewhat old pages, and the story, the lesson of a lifetime. With Gangopadhyay’s going away, a part of my education has stopped.

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