If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Moni

I don’t remember how I met Subhendu Sekhar Mukhopadhyay, but I recall that I became one of his numerous fans in no time.

Subhendu-da was a research officer at Rabindra Bhaban, an institute under Visva-Bharati, when I was an undergraduate student there. A bachelor then, he lived in a sparsely furnished ground-floor room in a university guest house at Santiniketan. Even now, I can see it if I close my eyes. … An approximately ten by fourteen room divided into two parts by a rudimentary cot in the middle. On one side was a desk and a bookshelf, and on the other, a kerosene stove on which he prepared his frugal meals, and often, tea for us. From his room, we could see a wide expanse of the sky and the gravelled road lined by acacia and palaash leading to the guest house. Through two large windows that were always open, sunlight and breeze streamed in. The door too was usually open. Subhendu-da’s dwelling was as open and inviting as his mind was.

He wrote brilliant Bengali, both prose and poetry. (He also wrote brilliant English, but that I came to know much later.) It is unfortunate that he has written so little, but even that little, if compiled and published, will be a significant tome. And Subhendu-da could speak with authority on lots of subjects. His knowledge, particularly of Rabindranath Tagore’s life and works, was deep and wide. But if anyone seemed awestruck by his erudition, he would try to inverse the impression with a disarming smile and a caustic comment, ‘I don’t read books, I read only book covers and jackets. Only illiterates like you believe I'm well-read.’

We went through university during a turbulent time, the late 1960s and early 70s. The Naxalbadi movement began, spread and died during the period, and along with it died thousands of young men, as the genteel Indian democracy bared its fascist fangs. It was a time when protests swept like bushfire through campuses from Berkeley to Sorbonne to Kolkata. Students’ protests even lead to the fall of the De Gaulle government in 1968. Shortly thereafter, Bangladesh fought for and achieved independence at tremendous human cost. Through it all, in Viet Nam, the underdog decisively won the most asymmetric war in human history. It was a time when hope was pandemic. It was also a time when all young people in West Bengal, except the jelly fish, believed in a cause. And most were rebels.

Subhendu-da too was a rebel, in a very personal way. He lived like a hermit, was staunchly anti-establishment, but wasn’t part of any organized political group (as far as I know). It is possible that he had foreseen the future of the left movement in West Bengal. And he was remarkably free from prejudice. Once he said, ‘Despite 200 years of colonial exploitation, I forgive the British for three reasons.’

Surprised, we asked, ‘What three reasons?’

‘Cakes, chocolates, and ice-creams.’

I lost touch with him after graduation. In 1983, after returning to Kolkata, I picked up the threads. By then, he had married Hena-di, a wonderful person herself, and they had a lovely daughter, Tinni. Subhendu-da was the Head of Sahitya Akademi for Eastern India and had an office at a quaint corner of the city, in the stadium complex beside the Dhakuria Lake. My office was nearby and after office, I would meet him and walk long distances with him, followed by coffee and upma at a South Indian eatery. He would never allow me to pay for the snacks. And on every single occasion, I came home with a feeling that he had thrown light on some dark corner of my mind.

Subhendu-da had a brilliant sense of humour and would regale his audience with witty anecdotes, optimally garnished for effect. He also had the rare gift of repartee.

Hena-di is from the district of Srihatta, which was an early bird in spreading education, particularly women’s education, in undivided Bengal. People from the district were known for their clannishness and intellectual snobbery. Srihatta or Sylet as it was known earlier, is also a place not far from Myanmar and many people from there have features like stub nose and slanting eyes. A country cousin of Hena-di once said, ‘Subhendu babu, you must give it to us; no fool has ever been born in Sylet.’

The reply was instantaneous: ‘Neither a beautiful woman!’

Subhendu-da was always in a sparkling white khadi dhoti and kurta. Their two-storey house at Park Circus was large and sparsely furnished. They ate sitting on floor and slept on hard beds. Subhendu-da had an impressive personal library, but had no fancy bookcases, only straight open unpainted wooden racks that went up to the ceiling. The walls were white and largely bare, save for a few paintings by Hena-di, and a framed postcard written long back by his father. Among other things, the postcard said, “Sell your land, sell your house if you have to, but do study.”

Their house was impeccably clean, always. Tinni doted on our two children, who were slightly younger, and together with her big black gentlemanly Labrador Prama, they were a happy foursome. For my wife and me, Subhendu-da and Hena-di’s simple, no-frills lifestyle was a model.

Subhendu-da’s austerity also involved walking long distances and travelling by notoriously crowded Kolkata buses. He would never take a taxi even in scorching heat. Once, Tinni, who was in college then, was on a cycle-rickshaw when she saw him on the road. She stopped and asked him to get on board. But her baba refused, ‘Your dad might be rich, mine wasn’t’, and kept walking.

According to an apocryphal story, Subhendu-da was asked by his boss, who was in Kolkata on an official visit, to carry his bag at the airport. Instead, Subhendu-da came home and sent his resignation letter. At that time he was in mid-fifties, with no sign of another job on the horizon. I asked him, ‘How will you manage?’

He smiled, ‘Don’t you worry! I am not going to touch you for a loan.’

During that time, the West Bengal government was planning to bring out the complete works of Rabindranath Tagore. Subhendu-da was given the task of editing the volumes. He was given an office, an assistant, and two typewriters, but he refused to accept any remuneration, despite not having a steady source of income. I asked him why he wouldn’t accept a fair compensation for his efforts. His logic was simple: ‘The day I accepted government money, the bureaucrats would start kicking me around. I would much rather hold my head high and do the work for free.’

Towards the end, when his health was failing, he accepted a government vehicle, but still no money!

Subhendu-da died on his saddle at the age of 61. He was possibly one of the last specimens of a breed that cares little for filling their pockets, but would die, if it comes to that, to hold their head high. He was called Moni by his family, including his wife and daughter. Moni in Bengali means gem. Rarely does a name fit a man more aptly. He was one of the most pristine, pure, and coruscating gems I have come across in fifty-seven years.

26 January 2009

7 comments:

  1. I enjoyed my read though I won't be able to prove that to you.
    Anyways, my Physics Sir Mr. Shib Kumar Chatterjee was also speaking about Shubhendu-da lately, though I am not sure if they are the same. But the descriptions make me feel so.

    Love
    Manoshij

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. Thanks for writing about such an achiever. It is time we and our youngsters come to know more about them and learn to look beyond the apparent pleasures. There is much more to life than what we see to-day.

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  4. "Je dhane hoia dhoni
    moni re na mano moni,
    tahari khanik
    magi ami nato shire.
    eto bali nadi tire phelilo manik."
    -Triratna by Kabisekhar Kalidas Roy
    He was a Gem of this nature no doubt.
    There are very few whose names perfectly express them.Moni da was undoubtedly one among them.Moni da promptly reminds me the poem which you and me read in our higher classes in school and scores of similar gems whom we came across on our way.

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  5. I was a student of Subhendubabu in Jadavpur University, this writing brings out his personality in the true sense of the word.

    Sarasij

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  6. Pore mugdho holam. Wish I knew him. Apni manushti ke murto kore tulechen,tader kacheo jader take chenar soubhagyo hoyni. And that's a wonderful way of remembering, paying tribute.

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  7. Ei Seemahin apachay er jugeo , ekhono je pran ache , ache amrita surya , ei lekha o jiban sei bartai niye elo.... aro pran er aswad asuk prithibite...

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