Four very different books that are equally engaging for the stories they tell and how they choose to tell them
It’s a cliché to say that Bengal/Bengalis are intricately linked to books and food, to addas and arguments—The Argumentative Indian (Penguin) by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen is partly a discourse on the latter. Clichés arise out of statistical truisms, from general trends that map society/community at large. So it isn’t unsurprising that on my recent sojourn and journey to Kolkata and rural Bengal, I tended to notice these aspects more; or perhaps I was attracted to these spaces due to my own preferences; or simply because these were omniscient/omnipresent.
My first night in Kolkata had to end with a traditional Bengali thali at Aaheli — koraishutir luchi, bhaat, kaaju pulao, begoon bhaja, cholar dal, papod, jhingay posto, phoolkopir tarkari, bhapa maachh, ilish mach, golda chingri, maangsho, mishti doi, rajbhog. I was in food heaven, well beyond satiation. Fortunately, I didn’t have to rely on Gelusil or Aqua Ptychotis — must-haves in a Bengali medicine cabinet (that includes Boroline cream, Jabakusum oil, Cuticura talc, and more).
Books were aplenty — whether at College Street kiosks, or in the dimly lit Bhowanipore Book Bureau near Gariahat (not counting big chains like Crossword or Starmark). I ended up with a huge stack of books— many bought —others gifted by authors I met at the Oxford Book Store launch of my new book: Sudeep Sen: Selected Interviews and Conversations (Classix); at the Kolkata premiere at Alliance Francaise du Bengale of my poetry-film, Silence (directed by Ramanjit Kaur); at a national seminar on Indian Writing in English at Lal Baba College near Belur Math;and at the launch of Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi) at the beautifully-appointed sanctuary Bodhi Tree run by Santasree and Devdan Chaudhuri: the latter, author of Anatomy of Life (Picador India), a very fine debut novel.
I also chanced upon books at the ‘Akar Prakar’ art gallery, and at the library of the incredible new space ‘Kolkata Centre for Creativity’ (KCC). The latter is an architectural delight with its classy restaurant Grace serving innovative fresh home-sourced fusion food of a very high order, carefully curated by chef Ritabrata Biswas. This vast building also has a dance studio, indoor amphitheatre, gift shop, creative laboratories and exhibition spaces.
Currently, Bose Krishnamachari’s outstanding multimedia exhibition The Mirror Sees Best in the Dark is on show. The way Bose uses materials, perspectives and colour will make you recalibrate your perception of everyday objects. I particularly enjoyed his Braille-text-like installations: ‘10 Commandments in Silence’, ‘Scores from the Dark’, and ‘9 Rasas and One Soft Cut’. The way sound and light travel through various media and elements in nature are explored with great intelligence, poise and minimalism. Everyone should visit KCC (expertly directed by Reena Dewan), not just for Bose’s fabulous presentations and Jogen Chowdhury’s masterful artworks, but also for the fine food and other exhibits housed within.
Some recent books that have grabbed my attention: Thirteen Kinds of Love by Soumya Bhattacharya (HarperCollins) is an exquisite gem of a book. He writes with the care of a fine craftsman. Set in a Mumbai apartment block, these are stories of love, lust, longing — pain, politics, pigeons — weaving tales of families going about their everyday lives. The hallmark of Bhattacharya’s success is the way his narratives unfold through the spectrum of ordinariness and believable plots; through “the different shapes of light”, its “slivers, filaments, cylinders, rectangles, squares”; through its “globs”, “points”, and “bars”. By far, this is the best book of short stories I’ve read this year.
The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution by Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury (Penguin) is a captivating read for anyone interested in poetry and lives of poets, and also those interested in the period of Indian history where the ‘Hungry Generation’ group of “barnstorming, anti-establishment poets, writers and artists in Bengal in the 1960s” altered the literary terrain there and beyond (including Beat Generation poets like Allen Ginsberg). Using a judicious mix of non-fiction/fiction techniques, Chowdhury lays before us an extraordinary story of our time that has largely gone unmapped. This is an urgent and important book written with intelligence and lucidity.
“This is Kunal Basu. Listen to him,” pronounces Jeanette Winterson on the front cover of his new novel Sarojini’s Mother (Penguin). Best known for his book of short stories, The Japanese Wife (the eponymous title story made into a moving, poetic, award-winning film by Aparna Sen) — this detective novel is Basu’s sixth in English. He has also written four novels in Bengali, apart from teaching at Oxford University’s Said Business School. The attention to detail that Basu brings to his prose, content, characters and design are impeccable. Pinaki De again, has done an evocative job with the cover. There are couched autobiographical details that over-and-underlay aspects of this novel, including that of the protagonist, Sarojini. She is Saz, Sarojini Saz Campbell, who “has come to India to search for her biological mother. Adopted and taken to England at an early age, she has a degree from Cambridge and a mathematician’s brain adept at solving puzzles.” Anyone who has read Kunal Basu before can crack the puzzles of his authorial biographical clues. Apart from his novelistic acumen, Basu handles ‘dialogue’ very well, something many Indian novelists cannot do justice to. I would not only urge you read Sarojini’s Mother, but all his earlier works — well worth the time and read.
I recommend four other recent books by Bengalis — Shantanu Guha Ray’s The Diamond Trail: How India Rose to Global Domination (HarperCollins); Bidisha Banerjee’s Superhuman River: Stories of the Ganga (Aleph); and those by a husband-wife pair of Boria Majumdar [Dreams of a Billion: India and the Olympic Games (HarperCollins) co-authored with Nalin Mehta] and Sharmistha Gooptu’s debut novel Menoka Has Hanged Herself (Simon & Schuster).
These four very different books are equally engaging for the stories they tell and how they choose to tell them. Guha Ray’s is a journalistic swift-paced style; Banerjee’s is a classical approach of studied non-fiction delineating the great river’s history and cultural anthropology; Gooptu captures the essence and tenor of 1930s silent film era with great flair and accuracy; while Majumdar/Mehta map out Indian sports: their highs, lows and historical arc where they have “grown from strength to strength”. Two other outstanding contemporary prose stylists I regularly read are Sandip Ray and Somak Ghoshal.
While in Kolkata, I also spent a fair bit of time in rural Bengal, in epar-Bangla. I’d lived for five years in the early 2000s in opar-Bangla, where I wrote Postcards from Bangladesh (UPL), a literary coffee-table book. This time my travels were to the riverine areas of bucolic Bengal — Pujali, Budge Budge, Ulberia, Diamond Harbour, Sinhal Gunge, Raichak-on-the-Ganges, and others. I stumbled upon the cleanest crematorium I’ve come ever across at Beltola Shoshaan Ghat; had endless daab (fresh coconut water) and roadside chaa-biscoot (tea-biscuit); leisurely watched fisherfolk, rice fields, brick kilns, cargo ships, Kali temples, Ramakrishna/Vivekananda portraits/statues on my river walks. Everywhere, I spotted witty political graffiti, anti-NRC-CAB banners, and huge megalomaniac signage: ‘Bangla’r Gorbo Mamata/Bengal’s Pride Mamata’. Along the way, I befriended two doe-eyed stray dogs that accompanied me studiously to savour the evenings' fresh air and sunsets.
The dusk breeze hummed the lyrics of an old river folk-song, ‘O Padda Nodi Re’ — and echoed lines from Jibanananda Das’s iconic poem ‘Banalata Sen’: “Chool tar kobay kar ondhokar Bidhisha’r nisha/mukh tar Shrabasti’r karokarjo”—“Like the dense ink-night of Bidhisha, her hair — black, deep black; / her face — like the delicate-weave of Shrabasti’s filigree-frieze” (my translation). Wherever s/he is, the call of Bengal is never far away for a Bengali.
Sudeep Sen’s newest books are: Kaifi Azmi: Poems |Nazms: New & Selected Translations (Bloomsbury) and Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi).