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A conductor of fiction

Even when being untrue to his undoubted genius, he nurtured young poets. Swapan Chakravorty writes.

india Updated: Oct 23, 2012 21:29 IST

I knew Sunil Gangopadhyay as a writer of prose before I came across his poetry. As a growing boy, I would wait for the installments every Sunday in Anandabazar Patrika under the pseudonym Neellohit.

These were freewheeling pieces in which a poor, pubescent boy contemplated a complex world of beauty, art, sex and political violence with a vulnerable candour that formed the key theme of a later group of poets. The prose ran like clear water, every ripple disturbing a sequence of rich shadows on the surface. It looked easy, but no one before or since has matched its appeal.

I loved his column in the literary magazine Desh written under the pseudonym Sanatan Pathak. It was that column that introduced me to the poetry of Binay Majumdar.

I was in high school when I read Gangopadhyay's poems. The first book I read was Ami Kirakambhabe Bneche Aachhi (The Way I Live Now). The impact has never left me. Last month I asked him if the fact that the title poem came bang in the middle of the book was pre-meditated. He looked unsure. In fact, many of the poems from the collection look unbidden, emerging from a secret pool of desires, desperately seeking beauty's redemption.

The last poem Bhrupallabe Dak Dile (When Summoned By the Leaves of Your Eyebrows) spoke of such redemption following a hurtful wait, and has come to be counted among the greatest lyrics from the period.

I read all his poetic collections since then. I did not give up even when I was disappointed with his longer poetry and poetic drama, and with the runny mix of the ethical and the erotic in his poetic figment Nira - an inversion of Nari, woman. The magic of sound and the ease of access were at times achieved at the cost of diluting the issues, such as those centred on sex.

Death had become a leitmotif in his verse early in his career, as had the fugitive promise of beauty and pleasure. But the toxic pangs of lust and helplessness had disappeared, and the poet of vulnerability was sounding invulnerably wise without delving too deep for wisdom.

At the same time, Gangopadhyay was writing an enormous lot of prose. Some of the short stories are among the most readable in the language. While many stories reproduce the blighted life of the beautiful from the Neellohit phase, a story such as Garam Bhat O Nichhak Bhuter Goppo (Hot Rice And Just Some Ghost Stories) shows a writer with a harder social edge. I loved the stories for children, although the later ones assume the occasional moral tone - a trait Sunil Gangopadhyay is hardly ever guilty of.

Perhaps Gangopadhyay's popularity rests on his fiction. Many of the novels were casual productions, written to pay off social or financial debts. He needed to plunder sources from the East and West recklessly, from ancient Indian writers to the legend of Tristan and Iseult. The best known ones are those that trace the rise of new Bengal in the 19th century, especially Pratham Alo (First Light).

But Gangopadhyay was best at fiction that was like chamber orchestra, with a small ensemble cast, a feature perfectly seized upon by Satyajit Ray in Aranyer Dinratri (Days And Nights In The Forest). He was good with confessional fiction: from Atmaprakash (Self-Revelation) onward this was where he was least unsure.

Gangopadhyay was not a 'natural' fiction writer. He could hardly fashion a character that was not a 'Sunil' stereotype. His inward gaze could have made him a writer like, say, Henry James, but he was unable to allow himself the rigour.

His critics resented his repetitions, his literary coterie, his politics, his clout with private media houses and with government agencies. Yet, this was the same man who nurtured Kritttibas, the small journal to which he owed his poetic fame, and who could bargain with powerful patrons to get young poets recognised and employed. Even when being untrue to his undoubted genius, he was unwilling to let anybody down.

Swapan Chakravorty is Director General, National Library, and Professor of English, Jadavpur University

The views expressed by the author are personal