life and letters

The Hungry Poet

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Over 300 books, films for Satyajit Ray, a friend of Allen Ginsberg. And, of course, poetry that has redefined love, rebellion and restlessness. Just how do you define Sunil Gangopadhyay?

Novelist, poet, inveterate traveller, ceaselessly seeking, questioning, holding up a mirror to society. Bengal’s most prominent contemporary litterateur Sunil Gangopadhyay personifies timelessness, in spirit and work. His writing, beginning with his first poem, Ekti Chithi (A Letter), in 1951, to his latest works, possesses a rare, eternal quality. A prolific writer with over 300 titles to his credit, his is a stunning oeuvre. Poetry, novels, short stories, travelogues, children’s literature, essays, there’s nothing he hasn’t done.

And he’s one of the few vernacular writers to find a wide audience in English. His novels, Sei Somoy (Those Days) and Prothom Alo (First Light), have been translated to English to great success. Recently, he was one of the few non-English writers (CS Lakshmi being the other) to contribute to AIDSsutra, an anthology brought out by Random House in 2008.

Yet, he remains warm, candid and down-to-earth. Gangopadhyay at 76 keeps an open house and receives scores of young fans every day.“Poetry is my first love. It was quite by chance that I got acclaim as a novelist,” Gangopadhyay tells Open one lazy Sunday morning at his modest apartment in south Kolkata. “I had gone to the US on a scholarship after leaving my job. When I returned in 1968, I was jobless. Writing poems, I discovered, was not lucrative, so I started prose. But money was always in short supply. Since I couldn’t always pay the printing presses where I’d print my books, I had to change presses very often. Ultimately, the owner of a press where I had run up a huge debt made me an offer: he’d waive my dues if I wrote a story for a film magazine he was publishing. I wrote Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest), and Satyajit Ray happened to read it. He called me and said he’d like to make it into a movie. I was elated. That’s one of the most memorable days of my life. And there was no looking back after that. I became famous,” he chuckles.

Ray’s Pratidwandi (The Adversary) was also based on Gangopadhyay’s eponymous novel. More recently, Subrata Sen’s Hothat Neerar Jonnye was inspired by a short story by him.

But fame came with a flip side, he adds: “I gained acclaim as a novelist, and as pressure kept mounting on me to write prose, the poet in me got short shrift.”

That’s probably just a personal regret, we say. Because for generations of Bengali youth, love and rebellion have meant Sunil Gangopadhyay’s poetry, reflected over heated discussions at Coffee House after college. Remembered over a drink on Park Street. Whispered over a late-night phone conversation under the covers.

And of course, there is Neera: eternal muse, lover, mystery.

Warm host he may well be, but Gangopad-hyay won’t talk of Neera. “Whatever I have to say about her is all there in my poems,” he says. A Peter Pan-like persona, who remains 27 though she first appeared in Gangopadhyay’s poetry a few decades ago, Neera has inspired generations of youngsters. But she’s also contemporary—the Neera of yesteryear used to drape herself in a sari; today, she wears jeans too. She is as ephemeral as she is eternal. She’s romantic, beautiful and elusive.

He admits, however, that he makes a conscious effort to keep Neera contemporary. “For that, I have to observe what today’s generation does, what they eat, how they dress, what they like and how they entertain themselves. A writer has to be a keen observer of his environment, the people and events around him. I try to keep my eyes and ears open always,” he says.His keen eye is possibly what makes his work so contemporary. Novels like Eka Ebong Koyekjon, Sei Somoy and Prothom Alo continue to appeal to young, college-going Bengalis as well as the old. Purbo Paschim, a novel that provides a stark depiction of the partition of Bengal and its bloody aftermath, moves GenNext as passionately as it did those who lived through that momentous event.

Gangopadhyay’s children’s writing is also very popular. Bumbling Kakababu, a crippled adventurist created by him, is one of the most loved characters in Bengali fiction.

He was also founder-editor of the seminal, anti-establishment Bengali poetry magazine, Krittibas. “I was only 19 when we started bringing out Krittibas in 1953. Shakti Chattopadhyay [celebrated Bengali poet], myself and some others. It was a poetry magazine exclusively for young poets. We were rebels, rebels against the Bengali literary orthodoxy of those years,” he recalls, still intoxicated by the memory of those heady years. “Bangla literary activities were centred on Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and a few other stalwarts of the earlier years. There was a lack of new ideas, new thinking. Bangla literature was stagnant. We rebelled against what the so-called litterateurs were doing then—they were content with just repeating, writing or thinking in the same mould as Tagore and Sarat Chandra. We wanted to break away from that.”

“Looking back, I think we were very successful in achieving our goal. Bengali literature constantly breaks new ground. So we were successful in steering Bangla literary activities away from Tagore and Sarat Chandra or Bankim Chandra (Chattopadhyay) into new and exciting vistas and genres, but we did so without purging Bangla literature of the greats (Tagore & Co),” he says.

“And Krittibas,” he adds, “which comes out regularly till date, has been a huge success. There is no established Bangla poet who wasn’t, at some point in time or the other, associated with it. It is as popular today as it was when it was first brought out.”

Gangopadhyay’s partner in crime and poetry was the volatile and brilliant Shakti Chattopadhyay. He was almost an alter-ego to Gangopadhyay, the fire to his brimstone. The duo were part of the Hungry Generation (other notables were Sandipan Chattopadhyay and Sarat Kumar Mukhopadhyay), Kolkata’s anwer to the Beat poets. Indeed, their maverick ways and wild buccaneering were inspired by Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, who spent some time in Calcutta (it wasn’t Kolkata then).

Though he speaks of those years with such fondness, they weren’t easy for him. Restless, rootless days, waiting for that elusive job, dreams, revolution. “In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a lot of unemployment. There wasn’t much to do except write poetry and dream of ushering in a new world order. Rebelling against the established order was the culture and philosophy among the youth of those days. We also used to be wild and indulge in excesses. Looking back, I don’t really regret those days; those days were a part, an essential part, of growing up, of maturing and gaining new experiences. I’ve learnt a lot from those days. Now, things have changed drastically. There are many employment opportunities, there are many profitable and meaningful pursuits the youth can choose from.”

Writing apart, Gangopadhyay, like most Bengalis, is footloose. “I’ve travelled to all continents, save Antarctica. I like visiting new places, meeting new people and gaining new experiences,” he says.

He’s also a voracious reader. “I read a lot, everything from newspaper editorials to poems and novels. I love reading about cinema. What really interests me is news of scientific advancements, especially physics. I was always very interested in physics as a subject,” he says.

Recognition, awards, countless fans, films with Ray. So how does he want his epitaph to read? “I want to be remembered as a person who fought for true recognition of Bangla, for its development and for its progress.”