It is entirely befitting of Sunil Gangopadhyay that apocryphal tales about him show him up a self-deprecatory light. The story goes that when auteur Satyajit Ray decided to film Gangopadhyay’s novella Aranyer Dinratri (Days and Nights in the Forest), he called the author up to enquire about the backgrounds of the characters. Which part of Calcutta did they live in? Which school and college had they been to? Which part of Bengal did their families belong to? Ray needed these details to ensure his characters dressed and spoke authentically, given their backgrounds. But Gangopadhyay could provide no details. Why? Simply because he had no idea! The story concludes with Ray scolding the writer, who figuratively scratched his head in embarrassment.
The story is probably untrue – at least, in this form. But it was typical of Gangopadhyay that he had constructed an entire novella only around the sensations, thoughts and events of a short period of time. For Gangopadhyay lived and wrote in the moment, for the most part. While it is true that his later epics – Shei Shomoy (Those Days), Prothom Alo (First Light) and even the entirely fictional Purbo Poshchim (East and West) – relied heavily on a sense of history and progression, the fact is that Gangopadhyay was primarily a writer who captured a moment, a sensation, an emotion, necessarily fleeting, as almost no other writer of his generation could.
No wonder, then, that Gangopadhyay’s first and eternal love was poetry. He always thought of himself as a poet and as a custodian of verse. If his cycle of poems addressed to Nira, the construct of the woman as the recipient of a man’s romantic-sexual love, has been the stuff of adolescent and young adult dreams in Bengal for almost three generations now, it is because of his unerring ability to articulate those momentary sensations that seem to span a lifetime. Young men – among them famous poets of the 2000s – guilelessly stole his poems and passed them off as their own to woo their women. It was another matter that the women were even more likely to have read the original poems already. But what Gangopadhyay must have been delighted by was that, in falling in love with the young men who echoed his poetry, the girls actually fell a little bit in love with the poet too.
It was, of course, a role that Gangopadhyay played to the hilt. Easily accessible in real life despite his celebrity status, he was the embodiment of the alternative existence whose experiences he captured brilliantly in all that he wrote. In his poetry, it was the life of the heart with an umbilical bond with the sense organs. In the early novels, it was the edgy, Bohemian existence, rejecting the urban young man’s employment-bound existence with binge drinking, binge holidaying, and binge relationships. Later, through the eternally wandering figure of Nillohit, forever journeying to Dikshunyapur, the place that no compass could point to, Gangopadhyay created a gentler version of the outsider, not as aggressive as the characters in the novels. And finally, in his historical epics, he moved away altogether from the contemporary.
Gangopadhyay’s vision of an alternative existence sat perfectly on the general state of dissatisfaction that has ruled the life of Bengal’s young since the late 1960s. Stifled by, first, the economic decline of the state and then its inability – even refusal – to stay abreast of the pace of development elsewhere in the country, people sought escape in many ways. Gangopadhyay’s poetry and novels were natural choices in a state used to reading as a way of making a statement.
If men and women between the ages of 20 and 50 and beyond felt a personal sense of bereavement at Gangopadhyay’s death, it was because they felt the writer spoke for them. Although there has been plenty of fiery, politically – and socially – self-aware writing in the Bengali language, with the writers earning justified fame, Gangopadhyay’s voice was quintessentially suited to the Bengali’s: poetic and brimming with imagery, emotional without being maudlin, a statement of personal, almost invisible, revolt rather than threats, rants or manifestoes. He was so much a part of the lives of his readers that they took him for granted, indulging the indifferent prose of his later years, the reams of passion-less fiction he wrote as command performances, even the cooling embers in his poetry, for the sake of what he had done for them when they were young.
Inevitably, Gangopadhyay’s footprints fell wider than his written work. He nurtured young poets and writers – many of whom owe their ascent into the public eye to him – happily lent his name as editor to anthologies that he did not put together himself, posed with anyone who wanted a photograph, sang full-throatedly at parties, and consistently flirted with women young and middle-aged, ever willing to live up to the persona of the romantic. He was also one of the very few creative people who did not abandon the Left when it seemed clear that it was going to be ousted, refusing to join the procession of writers, actors and artists who shifted their allegiance to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. He didn’t wear it on his sleeve, but Gangopadhyay did not sell his loyalties short, whether they were artistic, ideological, or related to relationships.
Ever pragmatic, Gangopadhyay repeatedly stated that he did not expect his works to be read after his death – and that it did not really matter to him. This was not pride, but a logical position arising from his atheism and consistent refusal to entertain what he would have classified as bullshit. But in this, he erred on the side of modesty: for Gangopadhyay graced his beloved Bengali language with a throbbing intensity that used words everyone knew but the juxtapositions, images and cadences he created were entirely his own. Entirely urban, entirely modern. And entirely Sunil.
For these verses there is no one else, there’s just you, Nira
These midnight verses are meant for your private intimate face
Waking suddenly from your sleep, pouring yourself a glass of water
You will wonder for an instant, biting your tongue, who it is
That might be thinking of you at this hour of the night – at that moment
Every line word syllable of my poetry, with every comma dash colon
With every dot on every ‘i’, will race towards you, in the
Unruly strands of hair framing your half-asleep
Tender face, on your bed, these words of mine, silent as my breath
Every letter in these verses, like the sorcerer’s arrow, is only meant for you
They know how to pierce only you
Don’t be afraid. Sleep. I am a long way away
My dreadful hand will not touch you, this midnight
My impossible arousal, heat, sharp desire and
Muffled groan will not terrorise you – my feelings
Like the beam of the candle, civilised, cool
On verses of sounds and words
Will visit your brow – if they kiss you
You will not know it, they will lie with you on the same bed
All night – you will not awake. In the morning
They will droop like dead butterflies near your feet. Their soul
Will merge into every pore of your body, forever.
When I meet you after many years you will laugh
Like the waterfall, not knowing any of this. Nira, I will
Gaze at the slanting beauty spot on your lovely face
While I speak of other things I will kiss your radiant face in my mind
Even in a roomful of people I will look at you
My own way. You will never get to know – with your entire body has mingled
The soul of every word in this my completely personal poem
Arunava Sinha translates classic and contemporary Bengali fiction into English. The latest of his 16 published translations is Wonderworld and Other Stories by Sunil Gangopadhyay.