Updated: October 23, 2012 23:57 IST

The man who “carried the modern consciousness of Bengal”

Kolkata Bureau
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Sunil Gangopadhyay
Sunil Gangopadhyay


An anecdote about Sunil Gangopadhyay doing the rounds is that he had gifted his first novel to an associate, saying that if the book was not readable it could at least come of use when pushed under a wobbly desk. His books instead landed up in best-seller lists.

Two generations of Bengalis have grown up reading the poetry and prose of the prolific Sunil Gangopadhyay — his works “a perfect statement” of the experiences one encounters between adolescence and adulthood.

In the world of the unfettered imagination of his creation — both the fantasies and the realities that he wrote of — resonated with the youth. When he wrote about a mythical woman, he could recreate the fantasies that one dreams of and the rather prosaic realities of the actual experience, believes Arunava Sinha, who has translated a collection of his poems, For Nira, Suddenly and the recently published Wonderworld and Other Stories. “His best writing has a lot to do with the language itself. The words or turn of phrase he used would itself have an emotional impact. As a translator, one had to be very sensitive to these,” Mr. Sinha said.

Born in Faridpur in present-day Bangladesh in 1934, Sunil Gangopadhyay went on to become one of the most popular Bengali writers on both sides of the border. With his death on Tuesday, most mourned “the end of an era in Bengali literature.”

Said filmmaker Goutam Ghose, whose critically acclaimed film Moner Manush was based on a novel by the author: “Sunil Gangopadhyay carried the modern consciousness of Bengal.”

Recounting how the novel — a biography of Lalan Fakir — was conceptualised, Mr. Ghose said he had often had long discussions with the writer on the philosophy of the Baul singer.

“As developments such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the spread of a culture of intolerance occurred, I would often tell him to write about Lalan Fakir. He would say that he would do so when the time came. And one day I found that he had indeed written it. I read it in one breath and immediately knew I would make a film on it,” Mr. Ghose said.

Starting off his six-decade literary career as a bohemian poet and editor of Kritibas, a monthly poetry magazine, Sunil Gangopadhyay wrote his first novel, Athmo Prakash (Self-Revelation), at the behest of the editor of the hugely popular periodical Desh for its special Durga Puja edition.

He wrote many other novels, short stories, travelogues, children’s book — more than 200 of them — but poetry remained his “first love.”

From the mid 1980s, his poetry was no longer the same. It wasn’t the same voice and he himself candidly said “Kabita ar ashe na” (the poems no longer come to me).Convinced that Sunil Gangopadhyay would have received much more acclaim across the country had his works been translated into English when he was at the peak of his abilities, Mr. Sinha pointed out that the early translations of his works were actually through films.

Two of the most critically acclaimed films of legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray — Pratidwandi and Aranyer Din Ratri — were based on novels written by him. “They were primarily known as the works of the director, but a small subset of the viewers would have been aware who the writer was,” he said.

“We two were the last two living authors whose novels were used by the maestro [Satyajit Ray],” said Mani Shankar Mukherjee, a contemporary of Sunil Gangopadhyay.

His seminal works

As readers of Bengali literature eagerly awaited the special editions during the Durga Puja festival, wanting to know what Sunil Gangopadhyay had on offer for that season, his three epics — Shei Shomay (Those Days), Pratham Alo (First Light)and Purba Pachim (East and West) that were first published in a serialised form — captured the imagination of readers for about 15 years, Mr. Sinha said.

Shei Shomay won him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1985. More than two decades later, in 2008, Sunil Gangopadhyay was elected the president of the Akdemi.

A work of historical fiction, in Shei Shomay he took considerable liberties with real life characters, some of whom were revered figures. But it was his skill of weaving in the details of the period with the plot of a thoroughly enjoyable novel, said Mr. Ghose.

The unfinished project

At the time of his death, the writer was in the midst of writing a serialised version of Chotoder Mahabharat (Mahabharat for children), a project he was very keen on. The children’s version of the epic, which had appeared in a leading magazine for over a year, remains incomplete.

“For India, the death of Sunil Gangopadhyay is the loss of a great writer. At a personal level, I have lost a great friend,” said poet Shankha Ghosh, who knew the writer for over 60 years.

Indeed, it was a deep sense of personal loss that was expressed by several well known personalities though the day. Recalling the addas (discussions) with Sunil Gangopadhyay, Mr. Ghose said that often he would decide to end them with a song.

“We would say, ‘Oh! It is time for Sunil giti (songs of Sunil) as opposed to Rabindra sangeet (songs of Tagore) or Nazrul giti (songs of Nazrul).’ And he would then dig out a song by Tagore or a Baul song and we would end the adda with it,” he said.

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