The writer who taught Bengalis their history, one book at a time

With a Sahitya Akademi award, an immortal character like Kakababu, and numerous controversies, this is one writer who truly had a story to tell.
A recent picture of Sunil Gangopadhyay(
A recent picture of Sunil Gangopadhyay(
Published on Oct 23, 2021 12:26 PM IST
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Died on 23rd October 2012

There is no dearth of writers from Bengali but none managed to write historical fiction as well as Sunil Gangopadhyay. He was Bengal's most loved novelist, historian, and poet. In as early as 1953 he along with his friends plunged into the whirlpool world of literature by starting a poetry magazine called Krittibash – a magazine that was interested in publishing young poets with a unique voice. After that, his master’s pen would go onto grace many famous publications.

A Bengali kid’s childhood is incomplete without stories of the infamous Kakababu. It is a pretty normal trend among the cabal of Bengali authors to have a detective character series incorporated into their literary corpus. Just like Satyajit Ray had Feluda, Sharadindu Bandhopadhyay had Byomkesh, Sunil Gangopadhyay had Kakababu – a retired archaeologist who had a penchant for mystery solving. This penchant would take him to faraway lands to solve the concerned mystery.

Allen Ginsberg with Sunil Gangopadhyay at Kolkata(Tumblr)
Allen Ginsberg with Sunil Gangopadhyay at Kolkata(Tumblr)

Many might not be privy to the fact that Sunil Gangopadhyay shared a few moments of camaraderie with the famous American beat generation poet, Allen Ginsberg. Sunil Gangopadhyay even finds a mention in one of Ginsberg’s poems named September on Jessore Road.

However, his most notable contribution is that he weaved stories of Bengali history through his literary lens. It is an extremely difficult job to write historical fiction as one needs to be well researched to properly etch out the fictional story in the said historical backdrop. Sunil Gangopadhyay absolutely nailed this.

His seminal text Sei Somoy deals with the period in Bengal leading up to the Revolt of 1857. His book provides the vast gamut of developments in Bengal during the 19th century. His chapters are filled with famous personalities like Derozio, Vidhyasagar, Michael Madhusudhan Dutta among others. Gangopadhyay talks about the newly developed cracks in society whereby the influence of Nawabs was slowly diminishing. It goes into grotesque details of Indigo imperialism and soldiers being forced to use cartridges greased with pig and beef fat. He won the Sahitya Akademi for the beautiful polemics he presented in this book.

His book Moner Manush which has been now adapted into a film talks about the eclectic life of Lalan Fakir – a Sufi saint who graced the soil of Bengal with his soul-touching music. Purbo Paschim is another book that absolutely has to be mentioned when one is talking about Gangopadhyay’s works. This novel stands witness to the galore of sectarian violence witnessed on both sides of Bengal post the partition of 1947.

“He was one of the best intellectuals among his contemporaries. The vacuum created by his death cannot be filled” were the exact words of President Pranab Mukherjee when Sunil Gangopadhyay’s body burned in the keoratola crematorium in 2012 and that perfectly sums up the legacy of Sunil Gangopadhyay.

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Wednesday, December 01, 2021