Once my boat had docked on this very bank The fresh breeze of spring had caressed its flank. You all called out to ask If I had a particular mark If there was somewhere I planned to go I only said, what do I know. My boat rocked, my strings were torn Alone I sat and sang of youth lovelorn. Hearing my song Young men and women came along Giving me flowers they had plucked “He’s one of us,” they proclaimed. Only this, nothing more, That was the first name I wore.
Then came the tide The play of waves did subside; With the nightingale’s tired song Memories of forgotten days suddenly pulled along Clusters of frangipani bowed And moved Scraps of spring’s invitation letter they were Meaningless, like a lost feather.
The deep pull of the ebb-tide Now wrenches my boat to the seaside. Boys and girls of a new age Call from a distance, engage, “Who goes there rowing his boat Towards the evening star, afloat?” I tune my sitar’s string Once more I sing — Let my name be thus known I’m one of your own Nothing more Remember that as the final name I wore.
~ পরিচয় (porichoy) একদিন তরীখানা থেমেছিল এই ঘাটে লেগে, বসন্তের নূতন হাওয়ার বেগে। তোমরা শুধায়েছিলে মোরে ডাকি পরিচয় কোনো আছে নাকি, যাবে কোন্খানে। আমি শুধু বলেছি, কে জানে। নদীতে লাগিল দোলা, বাঁধনে পড়িল টান, একা বসে গাহিলাম যৌবনের বেদনার গান। সেই গান শুনি কুসুমিত তরুতলে তরুণতরুণী তুলিল অশোক, মোর হাতে দিয়ে তারা কহিল, “এ আমাদেরই লোক।’ আর কিছু নয়, সে মোর প্রথম পরিচয়।
তার পরে জোয়ারের বেলা সাঙ্গ হল, সাঙ্গ হল তরঙ্গের খেলা; কোকিলের ক্লান্ত গানে বিস্মৃত দিনের কথা অকস্মাৎ যেন মনে আনে; কনকচাঁপার দল পড়ে ঝুরে, ভেসে যায় দূরে– ফাল্গুনের উৎসবরাতির নিমন্ত্রণলিখন-পাঁতির ছিন্ন অংশ তারা অর্থহারা।
ভাঁটার গভীর টানে তরীখানা ভেসে যায় সমুদ্রের পানে। নূতন কালের নব যাত্রী ছেলেমেয়ে শুধাইছে দূর হতে চেয়ে, “সন্ধ্যার তারার দিকে বহিয়া চলেছে তরণী কে।’ সেতারেতে বাঁধিলাম তার, গাহিলাম আরবার– মোর নাম এই বলে খ্যাত হোক, আমি তোমাদেরই লোক আর কিছু নয়, এই হোক শেষ পরিচয়।
A royal courtesan scorned by her lover A warrior princess who makes her life over Brothers cursed to turn into beasts A farmer’s wife who cooks up a feast The first songs I heard throbbed with dreams and rivers That’s what music is, a lifelong lover.
A bottle of fortified milk with its sipper inside my mouth, I would lie on the bed or the sofa as the story of Buddhu and Bhutum, two royal newborns cursed to the lives of a monkey and an owl, entered my toddler ears. Long before I knew what music meant, my ears were getting trained to catch a variety of notes. Saving money from their modest salaries, my mother and her younger brother would buy LP records to play for us on a turntable in my grandparents’ house where I was growing up. They were bringing home a variety of musical influences — Rabindrasangeet — songs written and composed by Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali Nobel laureate, shyamasangeet — written and sung in the praise of Goddess Kali, Atulprasadi — devotional and love songs written and composed by Atul Prasad Sen, a Bengali composer, lyricist and singer who was also a lawyer, social worker, educationist and writer. Of everything that was played, though, what I and my brother, nearly three years older than me, loved were dramatized musicals (also known as dance dramas) by Tagore and musical folktales of the kind narrating Buddhu and Bhutum’s story in Bengali. The heightened effect of drama, rendered through songs and musical dialogues was the perfect blend of music and storytelling that had our attention, hungry for the goofy.
At the Monday/Thursday class eight of us circle our guru, his cotton wool beard just about eclipsing that concessional smile. Bageshree holds the room and our octaves together.
(From my poem, Bageshree)
While singing and listening to music remained a constant in both home and school, it was only in middle school that I came to identify the octave’s notes. My mother enrolled me into private classes in Hindustani classical vocal music, one of the two branches of Indian classical music (the other being Carnatic). She saved money again, this time to buy a harmonium to help me practice my lessons at home. In school, we got to learn a fair share of Hindi patriotic songs and Rabindrasangeet.
And then there was the radio at home. In between preparing for school work and practicing my classical music lessons, the radio — our primary source of listening to music — had replaced the turntable by this time. To me, the radio was a magic box. You turned on a knob and it brought you Hindi film music from the golden era of the 1950s and 60s, you moved the knob to your right and it played English pop songs and Western classical music. Somewhere in the middle, if you persisted, you could catch BBC World News, albeit with the hissing impatience of a faltering signal. Twice a week at dinner time, my mother religiously tuned into two Western music shows — Forces Request on Mondays and A Date with You on Thursdays. While the former featured songs requested by members of the Indian armed forces, the latter was a request show for regular listeners. This was my first window into The Beatles, The Carpenters, ABBA, The Beach Boys, Glen Campbell and many other singers and bands. That they coexisted in my musical universe with luminaries of Hindi film music like Sahir Ludhiyanvi, Sachin Dev Burman, Shailendra, Salil Chowdhury and many others as well as Rabindrasangeet in the melodic voices of Kanika Bandopadhyay, Suchitra Mitra and Debabrata Biswas was simply as natural as the multilingual world I inhabited that required me to switch form Bengali to Hindi to English based on the environment I found myself in.
In grade eight, my musical world became even richer as our first cassette tape player entered the house. It was a small machine, custom made for us by an acquaintance. In the machine’s early days, our cassette collection totaled to two tapes. Yet, the musical wealth these two cassette tapes brought was truly infinite. You’ll see why.
The first tape was a predictable choice — a Rabindrasangeet album my mother bought. The other one, procured by my brother, would alter my musical universe forever. It was a jugalbandi (duet) of sitarist, Ravi Shankar and sarod player, Ali Akbar Khan, accompanied on the tabla by Alla Rakha , legendary musicians all three of them. It was a concert, Ravi and Ali, guru brothers — a relationship tag disciples trained by the same guru would go by — recorded at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City in October 1972, a month after the death of their guru, Allauddin Khan, who happened to be Ali Akbar’s father and Ravi Shankar’s father-in-law. At the beginning of the tribute concert, Ravi Shankar introduced him as one of “the greatest musicians.” I find it curious that the year and the month of that particular concert coincided with my brother’s birth.
The virtuoso musicians played three rāgas (“a melodic framework for improvisation in Indian classical music akin to a melodic mode. The rāga is a unique and central feature of the classical Indian music tradition, and has no direct translation to concepts in classical European music. Each rāga is an array of melodic structures with musical motifs, considered in the Indian tradition to have the ability to “colour the mind” and affect the emotions of the audience.”), opening with Hem Bihag, created by the departed guru, Allauddin Khan himself, followed by Manj Khamaj and Sindhi Bhairavi.
Listening to Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan strum the strings of two different instruments in such meditative and yet unintrusive harmony took me to a place I’d never been before, and one I didn’t want to leave. To say that they were complementing each other would be woefully inadequate. It was as if they were playing each other’s instruments, not the one they themselves held. I hadn’t had the opportunity to listen to a true jugalbandi before this, and I remain grateful to this day that my initiation to this collaborative form happened with such a stellar performance. The moment I heard the first notes of the sitar and sarod in alaap (the non-rhythmic melody structure revealing the rāga), at once pensive and uplifting, I knew this was the love of a lifetime. Once they moved on to Manj Khamaj, this time their notes finding the company of Alla Rakha’s beats on the tabla, I felt being enveloped in Delhi’s December sunshine, an experience I’ve forever cherished, with a balmy tropical winter sun bringing a kind of warmth which instead of whip-lashing you, cloaked you in a warm embrace.
A soothing sadness, the colour of mellow afternoons, glides in. Tears soak stationary hours and passing cataclysms.
Negotiating years and terrains Manj Khamaj keeps breathing. A footsure confidant. In its folds, wars lose their way.
(From my poem, Manj Khamaj)
To this day, listening to this Manj Khamaj jugalbandi teleports me to such a comforting, snug tropical winter afternoon. As I listen to it for a millionth time, the music embeds itself into my immediate surroundings with such intimacy that I can’t tell where one instrument takes off and the other follows, as if the sitar and sarod were two brothers themselves, with the tabla as their loving guardian that held them together and became playful with them in turns. Through all my musical discoveries and learning, this album has remained a sublime true north that never fails to bring me back home, metaphorically and otherwise. It’s a discovery I made because of my brother, and that memory, entwined with the divine effect of the music itself, makes this widely-acclaimed concert intimately personal for me.
Ever since that brush with music at the deepest level, at the level of the spirit, I’ve found my musical world continue to expand, to include Sufi music, Latin American jazz, African folk music, the work of innovative composers like Gustavo Santaolalla and Ludovico Einaudi. In this world the inner and the outer become one for me and boundaries lose all meaning.
Music had held me by the hand when the world seemed to slip away from under my feet; it has calmed my nerves when medicine or sleep couldn’t; it has brought me joy in the middle of enervating ennui and it has often taken me back to that crispy sunshine of my childhood winters in Delhi.
How rapturous, this dance of light on leaves The wild storm in the shal forest makes my heart quiver. Following the trail of the red road, folks dart to the haat A little girl sits by the dusty path and spreads out her toys These scenes that I bear witness to strike the cords of my heart’s veena. (Rabindranath Tagore)
I listened to that song. As a child. As an adult. Somewhere along the line, I started singing it. To be inside a shalbon or Shorea Rubusta forest for real remained a distant dream for me. The opportunity to witness these forests finally materialized in 2007, when I began freelance work in Delhi and could pick my own holidays. Along with my mother, an alumni of the Visva-bharati University at Santiniketan, I headed to Bolpur, the city in West Bengal where the university — Rabindranath Tagore’s gift to learners of all stripes — is located. Vishwabharati Fast Passenger, the train we took from Kolkata’s Howrah station, sped past unending tracts of green towards Bolpur.
As we stepped down the station at Noon, a heavy downpour received us. “It’s been raining non-stop for the past two days, Didibhai,” Anwar, our rickshaw-wallah told me. I sighed. We had only three days to spend amidst this verdant, semi-rural landscape. Anwar promised to return to our lodge at 4 p.m. to take us on a rickshaw jaunt.
Shortly after we finished lunch—a filling platter of rice, lentils, jhuri aloo bhaja (finely julienned potato fries) and fish curry—the clock struck four. The rain had stopped. Anwar waited outside. “Come, Didibhai, I will show you a few things around here today. You have come such a long way, from Delhi. How can you miss gramchhara oi ranga matir poth, Khoai, or a Santhal village?”
What sensory forces inhabit the landscape of childhood? What does it look, sound, feel and taste like? For Palash and Shafikul, two boys growing up in rural Bengal, that landscape looks like fields and rivers to play football and take a dip in; it sounds like the toktoki, a small metallic toy that makes a clickety-clack sound; it feels like catching caterpillars and flying kites. Dostojee, Prasun Chatterjee’s debut film, opens with a childhood scene most of us are acquainted with — throwing pebbles into the water. As the two boys try to outdo each other in covering the distance their stones can manage, no boundaries separate them. Yet, a wall appears soon enough, as quickly as the boys — each of whom calls the other by the same name — “Dostojee,” meaning friend — enter their respective houses, separated by a thatched straw wall.
As next door neighbours, the two boys have about as mainstream a friendship as two village boys could have during ordinary days. Except, the days have ceased to be ordinary. A spectre of suspicion and ill-will pervades the air around them, holding in its sway, the minds and moods of the grown-ups responsible for showing them the way. Dostojee uses the powerful trope of child’s play to convey messages that are anything but child’s play. In fact, this relationship couldn’t be developing at a more fraught time in history. The Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque has only recently been demolished in Ayodhya by a mob of Hindutva nationalists, who consider the mosque site to be the birthplace of Rama. This last fact is significant, because, although he’s a part of the region’s folklore, thanks to the epic of Ramayana, Rama isn’t traditionally revered as a god in Bengal. Yet as the wildfire of hurt religious sentiments reaches their village, that is set to change.
Dostojee presents a familiar story — of simmering communal tension — in a remarkably unfamiliar way. To begin with, the story takes place in a Muslim-majority village in West Bengal. This in itself is an interesting alternative to the dominant Hindu perspective one often comes across. When I asked him the reason behind this, Chatterjee told me “This comes from my own experience of traveling to areas like the film’s setting in Murshidabad for the last decade and a half, during which time I saw a continuous erosion of harmony between the Hindus and Muslims. There’s also another, more subconscious reason. My family came to West Bengal from East Pakistan in the early 1960s in dire circumstance. I tried to imagine what the relations between the two communities could be like, had we been living in a Muslim-majority scenario.”
Even as the battle lines are drawn — with the Muslims vowing to construct a new mosque, one they will call the Chhota Babri Masjid and the Hindus reciprocating by bringing Rama’s idol to the village temple — the graph of the Palash-Shafi (short for Shafikul) friendship maintains an even keel. The affairs of the grown-ups are beyond their understanding; Shafi, for instance, can’t understand why his father won’t allow him to attend a play on Ramayana, when he’d done the same without any fuss the previous year. When he still goes for the play, in stealth, the two friends walk up backstage during the play’s intermission and find the actors playing Rama, Sita and Ravana (all men), sharing a smoking break. The boys are incredulous, and when invited by the actors to enter their tent, Palash finally asks them, “Aren’t you each other’s enemies?” The response of the actors — “No, we’re friends. We only act as if we were enemies, all for the belly’s sake, you see?” — is one of the many subtle shrapnel director Chatterjee uses to make his point about organized religion and orchestrated clashes. This subtle artistry of getting the message across, where words and images have both external and internal meanings, makes Dostojee compelling yet poetic in the way great cinema is meant to be.
In the ceaseless romanticising of childhood, it is often overlooked that it is also a difficult territory. In a world governed by adults, children have to constantly look for workarounds, wiggling out ways to protect their little worlds while appearing to be abiding by the laws laid down for them. That is how childhood survives, by negotiating, but as Dostojee shows, also by subverting. And so, even as Shafi goes to see the Rama play despite being forbidden, Palash too, quietly brings an Eid treat from his friend’s house, hiding it well from his mother’s eyes, for his little sister. And on the eve of the Hindu festival of janamashtami that celebrates the birth of lord Krishna, Shafi comes over to Palash’s house to decorate the jhulan, an ornamental swing depicting various episodes from Krishna’s life. It is an activity children in Bengal take great joy in, and while Shafi’s innocent participation in an activity associated with a religion other than his own might not seem all that incongruous, what makes it noteworthy is Shafi’s sourcing of mud for the purpose — from the soil for the proposed new mosque.
One could watch Dostojee for its visuals alone — Chatterjee spoils the viewer in that department, with scene after stunning scene representing not only the beauty of rural Bengal, but of the particular joy of growing up there. In one scene, the two children are seen in a wide open field in the evening, wearing something similar to chef’s hats on their heads. Except, these are paper hats Shafi has made using scrap. They look ordinary up until the moment the hats achieve what their maker intends them to — gleaming with fireflies that stick to the adhesive Shafi has plastered the hat with. Even the word magic falls short to describe this scene — two boys laughing and dancing with a thousand fireflies crowning their heads as dusk descends — and its visual thrill. Then there are the more familiar and enduring images of rural Bengal — endless paddy fields, lush monsoons, village fairs and the bioscope as well as repetitive sights and sounds of weaving — the source of livelihood for Shafi’s family.
One of the most telling images in the film is that of Pagla, the village madman — sitting silently on a platform attached to a wall, the two halves of which have posters calling for the solidarity of Hindus and Muslims respectively. The madman isn’t a new idea, but even for an oft-used trope, this single wordless scene — depicting insanity as the only balance holding warring groups of religious fanatics in place — is as powerful as it gets in terms of visual coding.
Even as the two boys float — for “rise” is too lofty a word for the natural ease with which they bond — above the discord festering around them, there comes a point when they too must be separated. On an evening of torrential downpour when the boys dip into the river and begin “catching” fish with as much as Palash’s bare hands and the shirt Shafi has stripped himself of, Palash drowns, taking with himself Shafi’s privilege of uttering the word “Dostojee” ever again.
From this moment on, Shafi’s life wouldn’t be the same, of course, but Shafi himself won’t be the same person either. He would give up his waywardness and turn into the diligent student that Palash was, focusing on his lessons and reaching school on time. His friend’s death would make him obsessed with how fish can swim freely in water without drowning. When his home tutor illustrates for him how the fish’s body is designed to draw oxygen from water, Shafi, who had always been the more hands-on of the two friends, decides to invent a machine that would allow humans to similarly take in oxygen when in water.
Shafi would be diligent about one more thing — perhaps the most important of them all — keeping alive a project he and Palash had started together — making a butterfly from a caterpillar. Braving the awkwardness that comes with having to face Palash’s parents, he keeps returning to their house to put fresh leaves into the jar in which they put the caterpillar. The manner in which this simple act of childhood play is turned into metaphor is yet another testament to Chatterjee’s ability to turn the ordinary into the sublime. Gripped by the memory of the caterpillar, as Shafi comes running to Palash’s house late one evening, we see in the lantern’s dim flicker, how the caterpillar’s movement inside the glass jar catches the attention of Palash’s mother. Transcending itself, the tiny creature now becomes a symbol — of something that breathes and moves, and something that carries a bit of her son in its aliveness. She begins feeding it, and the day Shafi releases the fully formed butterfly, she is seen breaking down for the first time since her son’s death. The suddenness of the insect flying out of the jar hits too close to home for her.
It is perhaps in the film’s final scene — ambiguous, magic-realist, open-ended — where the stylistic panache of Chatterjee, comes full circle, albeit inconspicuously. As a reward for doing well in the final exams, Shafi’s home tutor offers to take him around the village on his bicycle. Shafi requests to be taken to the mango orchard he used to visit with Palash. Once there, he comes across the tree on which the two friends had carved the word “Dostojee”. The film could have ended here and made its point, but it doesn’t. As he looks around, Shafi hears the sharp, unmissable call of the koel, filling the air with its drawn-out koo-oo-s. Soon enough, Shafi returns the call with a koo sound and the bird responds with an even sharper call. This calling game goes on for a while, until Shafi, not the bird, becomes the primary caller. The entire exercise is about the echoing of the same sound by the bird and Shafi. Exactly like the echo he and Palash used to exchange every day when they called each other “Dostojee.” The film reminds us that is how friendship lives on — as echoes, as shadows — even when friends don’t.
Telling larger stories through the prism of childhood friendship is a delicate exercise and the execution is where the filmmaker’s facility and skill are tested. As in the case of the Chilean film, Machuca (2004), written and directed by Andrés Wood that depicts a friendship developing between two boys distanced by class during the months leading up to the coup d’état led by General Augusto Pinochet, or Julie Gavras’s French-Italian film, Blame It on Fidel (French: La Faute à Fidel; 2006), with a nine-year-old protagonist who must negotiate the world of her activist parents acting as liaisons for Chilean supporters of Salvador Allende alongside that of her Catholic school and grandparents, Dostojee too does a superbly nuanced telling of how children separated by religion are able to keep the faith while working their way through the rough road of bigotry and distrust.
[After travelling to more than twenty countries around the world and winning eight international awards DOSTOJEE has hit the to the big screen in theatres on November 11. The two leading child actors, Arif Shaikh and Asik Shaikh recently won the Best Actor award at the Malaysian Golden Globe Awards 2022.]
My essay Discomfort Food in Dhaka Tribune looks at food from caste and class angles through the lens of literature.
The first time the appearance of food in a book shook me was when I read Om Prakash Valmiki’s Joothan more than a decade ago. I read the book in English translation, which retained Valmiki’s original Hindi title. This wasn’t, in all probability, merely a stylistic decision; it seems to have been a necessary one. For, the word joothan, like its Bengali equivalent eNthho, does not have a satisfactory English translation. The closest word that describes it — leftovers — is way too short of what joothan actually means — scraps of food left on one’s plate after a meal meant to be thrown in trash. In the autobiographical book, Valmiki describes how members of the Chuhra community — the caste he belonged to — would be served joothan by their upper caste masters as wages for manual labour. Valmiki describes, in excruciating detail, how the Chuhras would collect the remains of the meals left behind from an upper caste wedding, dry the bits of pooris they collected in the sun, and how he had to guard those pieces from crows, hens, and dogs. These dried bits, half-eaten by other people, would be saved for the rainy season, when they would be soaked in water and boiled, to be had with chili powder and salt or jaggery.
My review-essay of the Pakistani film Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn) in American Kahani.
Night falls on a river. The village around it thickens with darkness. Not the river. On its breast, distant lights flicker like inextinguishable fireflies. The glow comes from the boats of the fishermen sailing on its waves. A majhi (boatman) sings a drawn-out tune and the river’s water folds into its haunting essence with every splash of the oar. This is how the Pakistani film, “Jago Hua Savera” (The Day Shall Dawn) unfolds as does “Padma Nadir Majhi” (The Boatman of Padma), the novel it’s adapted from.
An enthralling flute amplifies the aural impact of the film’s opening scene, holding the viewer in a delicate trance. A synthesis of the work of stalwarts like Faiz Ahmed Faiz who wrote the songs, dialogues and story; music director, Timir Baran and Academy award-winning cinematographer, Walter Lassally – this first scene establishes the tenor of the film’s sensitive and neo-realist aesthetic.
My tribute to singer, Sandhya Mukherjee, published in Indian Express.
Sandhya Mukherjee came to my listening universe inconspicuously. Growing up as a probashi Bengali in Delhi in the pre-digital age, I didn’t have Mukherjee as part of my early listening experience in the way Lata Mangeshkar or Geeta Dutt had been. I was two years away from hitting my teens when Mukherjee’s voice — unmistakable for its lilt and lalitya, Sanskrit/Bengali for sweetness or charm — entered my world as we moved to Chittaranjan Park in south Delhi. No Durga Puja went by without listening to songs by two legendary Mukherjees — Sandhya and Hemanta — being blared on loudspeakers. The pandals of the late 1980s were venues for the screening of black-and-white Bengali films on giant projectors. This was also when I found Sandhya Mukherjee’s voice merging with the screen persona of Suchitra Sen, even as Hemanta Mukherjee’s did with Uttam Kumar’s who often played her romantic interest. As I spent the past few days listening to the breathtakingly wide range of songs Mukherjee sang in her long and illustrious career, I found that the ability to adapt — to artistic idiosyncrasies, situational peculiarities and the basic demands of a piece of composition — was what made her such a versatile and gifted artist.
Amala couldn’t resist the urge to try out some of these new finds and took out a five-rupee note from her wallet to buy shahjeera, a darker and slimmer variety of cumin the shop owner told her to use in rich meat dishes and kababchini; small black globules that looked exactly like whole black pepper but apparently had a different aroma, stronger and warmer. A minute later, Amala and Manas joined the crowds drifting out of the market area.
‘There’s a special place I want to show you today,’ Manas said as he approached a taxi.
Prof. Somendranath Bandyopadhyay taught Bengali Language and Literature in Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan during 1957–1991. His subject was mainly Rabindranath Tagore. He wrote several books on Bengali poetry, art, philosophy and literature. In 2011, the Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata awarded him the D. Litt. The following is my personal tribute to him.
1986 — A teacher’s visit
I am in Class 7 and we have moved to Chittarajan Park, South Delhi’s very own Bengali pocket, only a year ago. It’s 7 or perhaps 7:30 in the evening, a busy time for our family of six. I and Dada, my brother, are hunched over our schoolwork — homework, preparing for a class test and such. Dadubhai, my grandfather, is coaching me as usual. In the kitchen, my grandmother and mother, both tired from a day’s work at their respective offices, are hustling to get dinner ready. Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door. We have no telephone (cell phones haven’t been born yet) and aren’t expecting any visitors in particular. When the door is opened, two tall gentlemen, one of them in pristine white dhuti and panjabi, are found standing. The gentleman in white, the older of the two, asks for my mother, and when she comes to the door, she, and the rest of us, are startled beyond words. Professor Somendranath Bandopadhyay, her teacher from Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, where Ma went to study for her MA in Bengali, has come to visit her. The last time the two of them had seen each other was more than a couple of decades ago, while my mother was his student. Back in her student days, he had shown extraordinary compassion to help her get through a difficult academic patch.
They had kept in touch through letters, and that year, as a student of class 7, when I witnessed this incredible moment, I realized why my mother held this teacher in such high regard. Professor Bandopadhyay was visiting relatives in Chittaranjan Park and mentioned that he wanted to meet his former student, who also lived in the neighbourhood. The conversation that followed through the evening is a blur to me, but I remember helping my mother sift whole wheat flour through a soft cotton cloth in the kitchen to ‘make’ refined flour as Ma and Grandma got busy making luchi, a delicacy that had to be served to a special guest. I remember my grandfather, a man of few words, expressing amazed delight that a teacher had taken the trouble of tracing his student’s house and visiting her. I remember that we were all amazed. I remember how a teacher’s visit had changed the complexion of a weary city evening. Over the next many decades, we would receive letters from him on postcards with beautiful line drawings depicting flowers, leaves, and nature on them.
2007 — Visiting a teacher
After working for many different bosses for more than a decade, I finally decide to work for myself and become a freelance writer-editor. Working my own hours gives me the reward of finding more time to do the things that bring me joy — write, cook, travel. I plan a long vacation to West Bengal with my mother. We spend the bulk of our time in Kolkata, but also have Santiniketan and Bishnupur on our itinerary. At Santiniketan, when we seek accommodation at the in-campus guest house, we’re turned away, with no vacancy offered to us by way of explanation. We put up at a lodge close to the campus. That evening, when Ma and I visit Professor Bandopadhyay, now Somen Mama to me, she tells him about our lodging woes, and he chides her saying she should have called him right from the guest house. He asks us how long we plan to stay for, and when he learns it would be the next three days, he calls up the guest house to get us a room there. We move back into the campus, a pilgrimage for me, where she would wake up to, as she did in her days as a student, to the calls of doel, the oriental magpie and bou-kotha-kao, the Indian cuckoo. I would discover mornings that sounded sweeter than anything I’d ever experienced in my existence as a city-bred.
At Somen Mama’s house for breakfast one morning, his affectionate wife, Boudi to all students, and Maami to me, treats us to a deliciously elaborate spread, complete with luchi, torkaari, chop (croquettes), mishti and her signature vanilla pound cake that I’ve come to relish. We sit at the low jol-chowkis in the dining area of this aesthetically pleasing and inviting house as Mama talks to us about Tagore’s worldview and the radical relevance of the Buddha’s teachings. Now and again, a humorous vein emerges, and he breaks into a laughter — resonant, uninhibited, completely disarming. We drift back to the living room for tea and more stimulating conversation. He then brings a copy of his latest book — Shilpi Ramkinkar Alaapchari — that he signs for my mother as a gift. He gives me a beautiful pair of polished burgundy wooden chopsticks that he’d gotten from his visit to Japan. I spend some quiet moments in their beautiful garden outside, soaking in the prettiness of flowers — clusters of Ashok and hibiscus in several colours.
Back in Delhi, my mother reads the book and keeps nudging me to do the same. I politely keep telling her I will, until I can’t put it off any longer. I’m barely into the first paragraph when I realize I wouldn’t be able to put it down before devouring every last sentence, every last word of it. The book’s format is deceptively everyday — it’s a series of conversations between two neighbours. Only, in this case, both the interviewee — the artist-sculptor Ramkinkar Baij and his interviewer — Somendranath Bandopadhyay are so much in synchronicity that the reader couldn’t ask for two better conversationalists.
By simply describing the living quarters of the renowned artist who he found as his neighbour, Somen Mama, draws me in. I am transported to the Santiniketan of Baij’s student and work life, to his world of mud and plaster, of studying from other artists, both at home and globally, of his interactions with Rabindranath Tagore who encourages him to chart his own course without looking back, of deeply empathizing with and drawing inspiration for his work from the Santhal Adivasis living in the area, and most of all, of living a passionate, feisty, and fiercely creative life on his own terms. The book is not merely a gift to my mother, to us, I realize; it’s a gift to all who can read the Bengali language. I am so taken by it that I want to tell the world about it and excitedly write a blog post and translate a few favourite parts. Later that year, I send my proposal for translating this remarkable book to an international translation fellowship. It gets accepted.
2008-2012 — A teacher for life
I am back in Santiniketan with Ma to meet with Somen Mama, to give him the good news, to seek his permission to translate the book. He talks about having heard of a certain blogger from Delhi who had translated parts of the book; then he realizes that person is me. So far he’s only known me by my pet name, so it has taken him a while to make the connection. While we’re here this time, I ask Somen Mama, now my author, lots of questions regarding the book’s technical aspects. He takes out big tomes from his study and patiently answers each one of my queries. I also spend my time looking more closely at Ramkinkar Baij’s sculptures spread across the open campus — Sujata, Santhal Family, Mill Call. My seeing is now informed by the history and context of these iconic works, captured with vivid sincerity by Somen Mama.
I travel to Norwich, UK, the site of my fellowship and complete translating the book. Over the next year, I look for publishers for the book and fortunately, the book finds a home. A journey that began with my mother’s master’s education in Santiniketan comes full circle as my name appears below his on a book cover. Shilpi Ramkinkar Alaapchari becomes My Days With Ramkinkar Baij in English.
2022 — The final adieu
On a March day, we receive the sad news of Somen Mama’s final departure. It’s still difficult to think of him in the past tense. As I reflect on this wonderful human being and the fullness of his life that enriched so many of us, I know what I will remember of and receive as blessings from him the most — humility and grace, a childlike zeal for exploring new realms, and above all, a deep, empathetic compassion for those around us.