Monday, April 16, 2007
Around March 2005, I googled “Sasthi Brata”. I had been talking to writer Amit Chaudhuri at a family function where he was also present. He told me that he was putting together a collection of writings about Calcutta. I asked whether he was including anything by Sasthi Brata. He said that he was well aware of the writer's name, but had been unable to get any of his books anywhere.
Sasthi Brata (born 1939) catapulted to renown with the publication of his (autobiographical) My God Died Young (in 1968). This was followed by his book Confessions of an Indian Woman Eater. I read My God Died Young in 1978-79, during my final year in college. He captured and conveyed beautifully the ethos of student life in Calcutta, in the late-50s, which, being a student myself in the same city, albeit two decades later, I found rivetting.
Sasthi Brata was a contemporary of my aunt Indu (my father's youngest sister). Also born in 1939, she was a student at the Calcutta Medical College, and knew Sasthi from debating competitions (he studied physics in Presidency College, next door). Sasthi Brata left for England in the 60s, as did my aunt.
Sasthi Brata’s name is hardly known among younger readers in Calcutta and India today. And after his initial two books, he seems to have paled into oblivion. What a strange turn of events. But also sad, because he was prodigiously talented and capable, far more so than many of the host of Indian writers in English who are all the rage now.
Sasthi and Indu – were brilliant students of Calcutta in the late-50s. As students, they related not merely to the subjects they studied at university, but to literature, life and the world, to society and politics. They were culturally strongly rooted, very left-wing, and repulsed by and rebelled against everything around them. And both migrated to England, which was like a natural progression for people of this city who were formed like them. But their brilliance had to contend with the complex personal and psychological dilemmas they carried inside them - which could also be seen as being specific to their circumstances, of the cusp of time-place they were born and grew up in. And eventually succumb.
Another - and even more brilliiant - contemporary of theirs, a friend of Indu, was Gayatri Chakravarty. She too left the country and settled eventually in the USA. But she was able to realise the promise of her student days, unlike shooting stars Sasthi and Indu.
The city of Calcutta too fell into blight soon after, from the mid-60s, with none of its own brilliant offspring there to help renew the city, when it needed them most.
After I googled “Sasthi Brata”, I came upon an article about him by one Mrinal Bose. I emailed him in appreciation. And thus began our friendship. We met for the first time in August 2005, and went to a bar in Barrackpore to sit and talk. Sasthi Brata’s name figured in our discussion. Accompanying me on my visit to Dr Mrinal Bose was my friend Abhijit. A few days later Abhijit sent me the link to Sasthi Brata’s website. Visiting that, I emailed him. I mentioned that Indu was my aunt and that she has been unwell for long and was in hospital. I was pleasantly surprised to get his email reply. He told me his first two books were being re-issued. He also wrote: "I am sorry to hear about Indu. I saw her last some years ago ... Please give her my love, if you contact her. Perhaps I could visit her in hospital, if she would like it."
It was during that encounter with Dr Mrinal Bose that I first heard the name of Subimal Misra. He had been scathing about the quality of contemporary Bengali writing and so I asked him to name one writer in the contemporary Bengali literary scene whose work he considered important. And he came up with Subimal Misra’s name. I said I would translate his writing.
Dr Bose gave me Subimal Misra’s phone number a few days later (from one of Misra’s books). I rang up the author to enquire about getting his books, and expressed my intention to translate. Misra directed me to a couple of bookshops in College Street, and also to a publisher who had brought out compilations of his stories and novels. I followed this up immediately, and obtained whatever was available. The books lay in my study for a month and a half as I went about my usual busy work schedule. On the last day of Durga Puja 2005, at home and having nothing to do in the afternoon, I picked up a collection of Misra's early short stories and began reading the first one. That was “Haran Majhi”. And thus began my project.
After completing my first round of translation of “Haran Majhi”, I telephoned Subimal Misra and told him that I had actually begun the translation project and just completed one story. I sent this to him, by courier. And since then – for the last one and a half years – we have been in touch, over the phone, through long, long conversations. I called him yesterday, and he wished me for the Bengali New Year. I told him I had marked the occasion of the New Year by putting up a blog of his stories.
Yesterday evening, after posting a story on the Subimal Misra stories blog, I accompanied my sons to a bookshop where they wanted to get some books with their saved money. A fortnight ago, another friend, Nilanjan, had met me to urge me to translate a selection of “alternative” texts on Calcutta that he was compiling. I had proposed a selection from My God Died Young, and so this had to be obtained. I had seen Sasthi Brata’s newly re-issued books in this bookshop some months back. So I got My God... yesterday.
Skimming through My God Died Young, I was immediately captivated. I am going to enjoy reading it. And of course I was taken back to 1979, when I first read it. But I would be able to appreciate this much more, and with greater depth now. Thanks to the re-issue, a new generation of readers have become acquainted with this book. See for instance the responses here and here.
I like to think that after four decades, Calcutta has awakened, to a new dawn, a new spring. Attending Bertie, Mel and Fuzz's concert last week (see here and here) reinforced this feeling in me. Well, if that's the case, its only fitting that Sasthi's book makes a reappearance now.
I should write to Sasthi Brata now, to tell him I have his book and am savouring the prospect of reading this.