Part one of a long-form essay on the literature and history that shaped the life of a young writer in West Bengal
By Chitralekha Basu
I began author-watching somewhat early. I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old at the time. I remember my father pointing me to a thin, bird-like man, in a dark dressing gown. (In retrospect, a dressing gown was something only affluent, patrician figures would wear in Bengali films at that time, in the mid-seventies, so this was a bit of a novelty where we lived, on the southern fringes of Calcutta, where men would usually go topless or slip on a cut-out vest at home. Then on second thought maybe not, for this was a somewhat mixed neighbourhood where chic villa-type constructions with a foyer and a fishbone staircase winding up to the second floor might stand adjacent to a cowshed.)
Baba said, ‘Did you see him? That’s Buddhadeva Bose.’
I asked my father if he was the same Gautama Buddha who left his young wife and newborn son to go meditate in the woods, and if he had now changed his mind. Although I couldn’t read or write then, I usually remembered the stories I was told. I had heard the legend of the Buddha a few times so the name had immediate recall.
I had an insatiable appetite for stories and would badger my parents to read from the books I had accumulated. My father would bring me a book on most evenings when he came home from work. I remember prodding and poking him to keep him from dozing off and losing the thread of the story, even as he, having spent a long day at work, and a few hours doing his own writing, would be too exhausted to respond satisfactorily to an unending volley of queries. He would, as a matter of routine, start writing immediately after he had showered. I remember the faint smell of sweat that lingered even after vigorous soaping with a Lifebuoy bar in the sultry Calcutta evenings.
The Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was one of my idols. I just loved the way she carried herself, the neat silk saris she wore and the trademark white tuft — a little lightning streak in a mass of wavy black hair, trimmed just beneath the ears by professional hands. I was fascinated by her bobbed hairstyle. Once — I was about four years old then and had begun to pick up new English words — someone asked me if I would like to grow my hair to a long plait once I started going to college, for a well-nourished plait and a stack of books held close to the chest were generic to women on their way to the groves of academe, at least that’s how illustrators would draw them in magazines published at the time of the Durga festival. I categorically said I would like to wear my hair in a bob ‘until my death’.
By that time the Naxalite movement in Calcutta was more or less over. Most of the leaders were in jail, nursing a mangled limb or two, earned from exposure to ‘third-degree’ treatment during police interrogations. Others had been bumped off in fake or real ‘encounters’ with the police or sent abroad by their parents — who had to be well-heeled or well-connected, possibly both, to be able to courier their children to safety before the police could intercept them. Stories about predatory police raids to round up young men with alleged Naxalite links from their houses in Cossipore, Baranagar, Beleghata and Dumdum had become part of popular lore. These sites of police action were, typically, marked by common boundary walls and rain-battered awnings reaching out to each other across impossibly narrow alleys through which some of the insurgents tried to escape, unsuccessfully. An oft-repeated tale of police crackdown was about an unsuspecting revolutionary being hauled up at the precise moment when he had lifted a fistful of rice which would be left forever frozen in mid-air, never reaching his mouth. He had just returned home after being on the run for several days and this would have been his first meal in a long time.
In popular imagination the Naxalite endeavor to build a classless society was an adolescent movement, in which only dreamy-eyed men with unkempt hair and soft stubble – like the protagonist’s younger brother in Satyajit Ray’s film Siddhartha and the City — threw themselves in the way of police bullets. It was almost as if getting killed was the goal of this enterprise, which, doubtless, enhanced the movement’s romantic appeal.
Some of the walls in our neighbourhood still bore the slogans: Bonduk’er nol-i shakti’r utsho, “Power comes from the barrel of the gun”, Chin’er Chairman Aamader Chairman “The Chinese Chairman is our Chairman”. I would see images of a garlanded and beaming West Bengal chief minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, in newspapers and the weekly magazine ‘Desh‘.
In those days, people had more conversation. Everyone seemed to have their own idiosyncratic views about why the world looked so skewed and what might be done to make it a more decent and equitable society, which they would verbalise. At dinner, which we would have on a table that could be collapsed to make room to set up another collapsible contraption — a foldaway camp bed for me to sleep at night — my parents would scrutinise a certain politician or a bureaucrat like they were judges on a reality show. They would talk incessantly and argue a lot, taking a self-righteous tone that now in retrospect seems faintly endearing. I vaguely heard Ray was Mrs Gandhi’s right-hand man who had, extremely methodically, exterminated the last of the Naxalites. Somehow I thought the tousled-haired, bespectacled Ray, playing a game of tennis in white shorts, was rather cool. (This was the beginning of the tabloidisation of mainstream Indian papers; in a few years, a photo of the Prime Minister Morarji Desai in swimming trunks would make the lead photograph.) I was a bit sorry when he had to step down to make way for a Left Front government in 1977.
Soon Buddhadeva Bose became a part of my ‘reading’ list. During summer holidays, my mother and I would lie down briefly in the afternoon — me on my parents’ bed and she on a mat of woven grass on the pink and white mosaic-tiled floor, which was a lot cooler. She would usually read me a poem or a story. It was a bit like listening to a narration on the radio as her voice rose from an invisible source. One day she read out a poem by Bose, from a children’s festival annual.
Aami swapney dekhi shei shobuj bagan
Jetha jol’er dhara choley kaloswarey
Jeno chokhey na dekha kon door foara
Gai shomosto din, gai basanta gaan
*In my dreams I see a green park
A chorus of waters singing along
Like a faraway fountain, yet unseen
It sings all day, a springtime song
I was intrigued by the poem’s narrator — a man, unable to sleep, alone in a darkened room, listening to the never-ending discharge from a fountain, still hidden from his view. Lying alone in bed in a room where the curtains were drawn and the light came in only through the slats in the window and sunrise-patterned ventilators, I could see the moist dark foliage in that secret garden most vividly. Being made to spend my afternoons in a semi-darkened box, cut off from the effulgent, buttery glow of a tropical summer afternoon outside of it, as I was, I wondered what kept the man in the poem from stepping out of his closet and go look for the fountain and burbling stream issuing out of it. All he needed to do was manipulate his height by sipping from a bottle lying somewhere on the floor to be able to pass through the tiny door, merged with the darkness of the damp lichen-coated wall.
Then I saw the solitary man again, standing on a pedestal, his head shooting into the dark night sky. Giant beams of light emerging from his bejeweled eyes entered the blinking windows of the city. In each home he came across a tale of suffering, heartbreak or deprivation, indeed much like the Buddha had done before him. By the time his friend, the swallow, had picked the last gold leaf from his robe, dropping it through the window of a family in distress to be exchanged for food and warm clothing, and the prince was left standing naked on the pedestal on a winter night, I burst into tears.
“What is it now?” said Ma, who was reading to me from a book of stories by Oscar Wilde. At that age, when I was still unable to read the stories myself, I would be embarrassed by the fact that books could make me cry. On my middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom, I imagined the red bandanna-wearing dacoits in Lila Majumdar’s story Padipishi’r Barmi Baksho (Aunt Padi’s Burmese Case) waiting for me in the cobweb-infested, watery darkness behind the door that hung loosely at the hinge. Or it could have been the man-eating lion in Uganda which crept quietly inside the tent one night, watching over the still-sleeping Shankar in Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Chander Pahar (Moon Mountain).
But I also liked to think of myself as a fearless, spunky woman, so I told my mother I had a tummy ache.
Chitralekha Basu is a writer of fiction, a translator, and a singer of Tagore songs. Her book, ‘Sketches by Hootum the Owl: a Satirist’s View of Colonial Calcutta’ – is a re-imagining of the first work of modern Bengali prose, written in 1861/62 by Kaliprasanna Sinha. She is interested in the comparative histories of Calcutta, her hometown, and Hong Kong, where she now lives.