When I reached Kolkata in the December of 2004, the prospect of five years in the city’s most gracious home held the promise of many delights but one among them was particularly alluring.
There were five people I wanted to spend time with, as much time as they could spare. And what better way to use a governor’s leisure than to seek their time?
Two of them I had been lucky enough to have met and got to know earlier, the nonagenarian political patriarch Jyoti Basu and the master-sculptor, Somnath Hore. Jyotibabu was as busy as he had been when in office, Somnathbabu was in Santiniketan and not in the best of health.
The other three were ‘my’ chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee then who there could not be a busier person in the whole of Kolkata, the opposition leader Mamata Banerjee whose mass leadership required her to be with people 24x7, and — Suchitra Sen.
Difficult as it was for me to expect the first four to make time for extended un-agendaed conversations, meeting the legendary actress was simply out of the question. Gentle enquiries elicited the courteous explanation that she did not really meet anyone and would prefer to be left undisturbed. There is nothing to be done with that kind of situation.
Jyotibabu and Somnathbabu, despite the situation I have described, spared time for me. I learnt from them about life in the 1940s and 1950s, of the billowing of hopes and their crumpling up, like a punctured balloon, in our times.
"Anyhow, all that was a long time ago…" Jyotibabu would say rounding off a reminiscence "…and I am a very old man now…" Somnathbabu would talk of how the art of sculpting has fallen on bad, commerce-driven days. Both of them sounded wan rather than sad, tired of what they were seeing rather than angry.
Buddhababu, a year older than I, silently permitted me to call him that though, in official correspondence, we were ‘My dear Chief Minister’ and ‘My dear Governor’. He was the very perfect model of how a chief minister should engage his governor in conversation or correspondence.
There was cordiality, but never familiarity; warmth but no levity. I remember suggesting to him, early in our association, that both of us go to Coffee House some day for its famed beverage and samosas. He smiled wordlessly.
He must have thought me a naïf. To my saying, at our first or second meeting, I would like his advice on which Bengali films my wife and I should see, he said, "Governor, do not go to cinema houses to see films…They are generally not worth seeing…" Books linked us.
"What are you reading?", he would ask. And often sent me new titles he had liked, to read. But ‘getting to know’ Buddhababu, I learnt very early on, was neither good protocol nor good sense. He had work to do, while I only had engagements to keep. He had a state to run, I was trying to run an estate.
That Mamatadebi is a turbine, I recognised at our very first meeting. She always came with a sprint in her gait, bringing a group, introduced each member of it rapidly but and correctly, asked one or two of them to speak to the purpose, then gave a crucial summary and, giving me a memorandum, left as briskly as she came in. I got to see and understand her better with each such visit but her time was not meant to be taken up by anything small like ‘adda’.
If with Buddhababu and Mamatadebi, it was a case of time, traditions and propriety keeping my ‘five year friendship plan’ in correct suspense, with Suchitra Sen, it was the sheer impossibility of it.
I often wondered at the power of her privacy, the force of her reclusion. And I came quite simply, to respect it. The gods of good chance must have taken pity on me for one day when I went to a nursing home for a check-up, the doctors told me Suchitra Sen had been admitted there that morning.
Asking for my respects and my best wishes to be conveyed to her, I proceeded with my appointment. As I finished and was about to leave, a young woman I recognised as Moon Moon Sen came up to me and said ‘Ma has learnt you are here and would like to see you’. I said I did not wish to disturb her. ‘Not at all…She wants to meet you’. Paro had not changed. The doe eyes were as molten, the smile as plangent.
Required by doctors not to rise from her bed, she apologised for not getting up to say ‘Namaskar’. I said to her that I, like millions, will remember her roles in many films but, very specially, for that in one film. ‘Oh’, she said and then turning her eyes towards a blank wall with a sigh intoned — that is the word, intoned — one word with the merest hint of an interrogation in it ‘…Devdas…?’.
A week after her passing, I was sharing a dais at a meeting in Chennai with Devdas’ Chandramukhi. The meeting was to felicitate a gifted Bharatanatyam dancer, Meenakshi Chitharanjan.
Vyjayanthimala in Chennai at round 80 is as agile as Chandra in Chitpur at around 20. Conversation naturally turned to Suchitra. "You know", Vyjayanthimala said "Suchitra and I never met on the sets of the film. Even for the famous scene when Paro and Chandra ‘meet’, the shots were taken separately…The only thing we had in common or shared was…Devdas".
All the five persons I wanted to get to know permitted me access but they did so in their own light, not mine. That is how it should be; I am grateful to them. And though I did get to meet, by pure chance, my fifth ‘I want to know’ person, it was her closed door that opened her life to me.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal