Presenting to you an excerpt from the book Dear Reader – A Writer’s Memoir by Sankar, Translated by Arunava Sinha published by HarperCollins Publishers India.
BE HAPPY, MAY YOUR FAMILY BE PERFECT. THESE ARE THE WORDS of benediction with which my mother’s mother would bless her daughters and everyone else in the world.
Images from that time swim up before my eyes after all these years and I am filled with regret at not having understood my grandmother despite having seen her up close.
She was a true beauty. Her name was Amritabala—and she was indeed an embodiment of sweetness. I can recall the appearance of my grandfather Khirode Bandyopadhyay clearly—tall, tending towards fair, with not an ounce of extra fat on his body, and a permanent smile on his face.
The man himself was reckless and audacious, but we’ll come to that later. Although I remember him well, I cannot recollect my grandmother’s appearance as a married woman; I can only picture her as a widow, in white with closely cropped hair. Her face was one of god’s unique works of art.
She used to live in Calcutta’s Shyampukur area. When I was nine, my mother packed me off to stay with her after my final examinations.‘Be a good boy, don’t make any demands, and never ask about Bogola Mama,’ Ma instructed.
My grandmother’s joy knew no bounds when I turned up at the small house on Keshta Kundu Street. Dipping into the emergency funds she had squirrelled away, she made sure to get fish for her favourite grandson’s meals. Then she took me to the Kashi Mitra Ghat on the Ganga for a bath. The crematorium was next to it. Here she sprinkled water on the spot where my grandfather’s body had been laid on the pyre a few years earlier, muttering, ‘Om shanti, shanti, shanti.’
Always a precocious child, I asked her,‘What does shanti mean, Didima?’
Flummoxed by this unexpected question, she calmly answered, ‘You’ll know when you grow up.’
But I wasn’t one to give up. Now that I had asked the question I needed an answer. After her bath, Didima bought 250 grams of assorted fish from the road next to the ghat, along with some potatoes and vegetables which she bundled up in the anchol of her sari. Needless to say, we had no shopping bag. She handed me the fish in a paper packet.
As a Brahmin’s widow she must have been loath to give off the smell of fish from her clothes immediately after a bath in the holy river, but with her favourite grandchild—her second daughter’s eldest son—staying with her, what was she to do? Back in the house on Keshta Kundu Street, I began to wonder how such a meagre quantity of fish would do for the two of us.
There were other reasons for concern too. The first: it wasn’t enough to buy the fish, you needed mustard oil to fry it—my grandmother may not have had enough in stock since it was close to the end of the month, and she had to make what little oil she had last five days more. She had a special arrangement for conquering the family finances at month-end—this was to boil the rice with potato, dal and seasonal vegetables like radishes, and then add some salt from a little bundle.
The country hadn’t been partitioned yet, so Himalayan pink salt was still available. Didima used to call it ‘shonduk noon’. Mustard oil in boiled rice and vegetables was a luxury, its absence didn’t matter.
Satiating me as much as she could with two different preparations, my grandmother would get down to her own meal of boiled rice and vegetables. She was seated on one of the two low wooden platforms, or pidis, and I, on the other. Like a fool, I asked, ‘What about your fish?’ She smiled.‘I left it behind at Kashi Mitra Ghat for your grandfather.’
That no one came back from Kashi Mitra Ghat, or that that was the reason my grandmother had given up onions, garlic, fish and mooshur dal was not something I was able to grasp. ‘This is the way of the world,’ she said affectionately, ‘you’ll understand when you grow up.’
The sheer number of things I would have to understand when I grew up was beginning to give me immense anxiety.
Instead of explaining further, Didima added, ‘There’ll be many things in this world you’ll have to think about when you’re a grown-up. Didn’t your grandfather tell your mother you’ll be a great scholar, another Ashutosh Mukherjee?’ My beautiful grandmother often bolstered her fair-skinned daughter’s confidence by hinting at a correlation between dark skin and high intelligence.
One of the things Didima did tell me was that eating fish and wearing colourful clothes after one’s husband’s death would invite harm to the family.
I pressed her to explain what this meant. Finishing her frugal meal, she said, ‘Everyone in the family should prosper and be happy. How will that be possible if we invite harm on them?’
I used to think she was foolish for choosing austere food and attire simply to ensure no harm befell others. She didn’t even have a line of vermilion in her hair as my mother did. When I mentioned this, she said, ‘You mustn’t say that it will bring harm to the family, and there won’t be peace.’
In the evening Didima lit an incense stick in the tiny room and touched the images of gods and goddesses, and finally, two framed photographs standing in a niche in the wall, with them. Both photographs looked blurred behind the profusion of sandalwood paste smeared on them. My grandmother was constantly concerned about the welfare of not just those who were alive but also those who had died. Unlike the photographs though, her memory was as sharp as ever, as her daily rituals revealed.
It’s best to share some facts about Didima at this stage. She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She was married to a mid-level assistant in a British company in Calcutta. Hers was what you might call the perfect family, complete with husband, sons, and daughters. My grandfather worked at Fairlie Place or some such area in a company whose name is lost to history.
Once, a young Englishman planted his booted foot on Dadu’s chair. My grandfather’s self-respect asserted itself instantly, and without giving any thought to the consequences, he chose the medium of a slap to convey his outrage. It was an unprecedented affair: An Englishman had been struck by an Indian employee in full view of everyone. Dadu walked out of the office immediately afterward and never returned.
He might have been in greater trouble had he gone back, for when it comes to slapping legal cases on employees the English have no match.
Patriotism and pride had won, but financial ruin stared my now-unemployed grandfather in the face. He returned to his village with his daughters of marriageable age and his sons to fight the last phase of the battle of life. He spent most of his time in Calcutta, however, in search of work, and earned some money sporadically—like Harihar in Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel Pather Panchali.
All the responsibilities rested on the shoulders of the Sarbajaya-like Amritabala, except Sarbajaya had two children to look after, while in Amritabala’s family, there were seven mouths to feed.
My grandmother did not visit our house in Howrah too many times. But whenever she did, she would bless my mother with these words: Be happy, and may your family be perfect. My mother would listen to her own mother’s benediction with a bowed head.
There was no doubt that she would try her best to fulfil Didima’s wishes. But it must be remembered that the lack of money and fear of social censure had led her to wed someone who had been married once before. With the wedding my beautiful mother had to sacrifice two things—her wish for a young husband, and the name she had been given at birth.
I am not going to add to my readers’ burden of sadness by providing an elaborate account of my battle-scarred grandmother’s sufferings. Two other daughters had even more cheerless married lives and a third was relieved of all earthly pain through an early death. And of Bogola Mama, whom my mother had expressly warned me not to bring up?
I’ve been told he was a lively, talented and popular young man, with extraordinary abilities both in sports and studies. But one day he fell ill while playing football, and thereafter ran up a high fever. His mother threw herself into nursing him, but she wasn’t able to get him treated medically. The god of death took full advantage of this and made Didima suffer the loss of a son in his prime. She didn’t even get the time to grieve—eventually, she tried to forget the agony of losing her son by moving to Calcutta.
Meanwhile, the home back in the village was lost to debt. It was only when my nationalist, courageous and spirited grandmother finally surrendered to death that she was freed of the anguish of failing at life.
During the days that I spent with her, she would bathe and feed me, make me lie down on a rush mat in the pigeonhole that was her house, and run her fingers through my hair. Her touch was so delightful that even today my body thrills to its memory. And through all of this, she would shower blessings on me.‘May you be a king, may you be the apple of your mother’s eye, may you make her a queen. You will, won’t you?’ I would answer, ‘I will make her, you, and my wife queens.’ She would laugh loudly and say, ‘You’ll have to order three gold crowns at the same time then.’
Not understanding the implications, I would say, ‘Of course, I will, Didima. I’ll have diamonds and emeralds set in yours.’ She would say, ‘Give the crown with diamonds in it to your mother. I couldn’t give her any gold jewellery when she got married. She wore the neighbour’s ornaments for the wedding, and even those were removed and replaced with imitation gold jewellery before she left for her husband’s house.’
‘Did you also wear imitation gold ornaments to your husband’s house, Didima?’ My grandmother was a trifle disconcerted by the question, for who would believe she had come to her husband’s house with over a kilogram of gold jewellery? Amritabala’s father was affluent, with a cowshed full of cows, a granary full of rice, and a safe full of gold and silver.
Why did my grandmother wear no ornaments then? She explained to me that a woman’s happiness didn’t flow from her father’s wealth but from her husband’s fate. Then she told me something that seemed strange at my tender age: A woman’s life is sustained by three different fortunes—her father’s, her husband’s, and her son’s.‘You’ll see how happy your mother will be when you put a crown on her head and make her a queen.’
‘I’ll make you a queen too,’ I told Didima. Possibly because she knew that this wouldn’t be possible, that one cannot become a queen after death, she kissed me, ruffled my hair, and said, ‘You’re saying so is enough to make me a queen right now.’
Today I think back in wonder at how my grandmother told me so many funny stories to make me laugh regardless of all her suffering. Despite the way my grandfather’s nationalistic fervour had hurt the family’s fortunes, her sense of humour was laced with her love for her country as she sang and danced to patriotic songs. Some of the lines from her songs have survived my forgetfulness: You may talk about your land but it isn’t really yours, if it was then why would English ships with foreign goods sail along these rivers?
I should mention that Didima would pray to god every day for the emergence of the perfect family for her only living son, whose income was quite meagre. Her home consisted of a small room on the first floor of a house and an even tinier kitchen on the terrace. She had to share a bathroom and a toilet with the other tenants.
My uncle—Didima’s son—and I slept in the tiny room, while she would go up to the terrace after feeding us and lie down on a mat outside the kitchen beneath the open sky. The difficulty arose when it rained, for then she would have to roll up her mat and go into the kitchen, which wasn’t large enough for her to even stretch out her legs. If it rained harder, the water would get in through the broken door and tile roof and flood the kitchen.
Once, Didima spent the entire night on the stairs because of an onslaught of unseasonal rain. In the morning I asked her why she hadn’t woken us up. She had no grievance against anyone in the world—not the British, not her husband, not even fate. She was from a highly regarded family; waking her son and grandson in the middle of the night was not her style.
After sprinkling holy water in the Kashi Mitra crematorium with the words ‘Om shanti’, in response to her talkative grandson’s question—‘What is peace?’—Didima had answered, ‘You’ll know when you grow up.’
Every time I have thought about her in the years since I have realized she was right. The truth is that peace is accessible even without happiness—as was the case with my long-suffering grandmother despite all her travails. She had no complaints against anyone in the whole wide world; all she wanted was for her son, her daughter, and her grandson to have perfect families and live happily. Their happiness meant her happiness. She made being happy at another’s happiness even when you had none of your own look easy.
Excerpt Credit –
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India
Title: Dear Reader – A Writer’s Memoir by Sankar, Translated by Arunava Sinha
About the Book
Sankar’s life as a writer began when he decided to honour his deceased employer, Noel Barwell, by writing a book—building a statue or naming a road after Barwell weren’t feasible options. The result was the novel Kato Ajanare (The Great Unknown). Although he was dismissed by his peers as a one-book writer and told he wouldn’t amount to anything in the world of literature, he persevered, creating an oeuvre that boasts, among others, bestsellers like Chowringhee, Jana Aranya (The Middleman) and Seemabaddha (Limited Company).
In Dear Reader, originally published as Eka Eka Ekashi in Bengali, Sankar reflects on his own life. From his mother and grandmother to his teachers and headmasters, he writes fondly of the women and men who shaped his youth; and of legendary figures like Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Shibram Chakraborty and Sunil Gangopadhyay who stroll in and out of famous neighbourhoods like Howrah Station, College Street Boipaara and Burrabazar.
Superbly translated by Arunava Sinha, this is Sankar’s love letter to an ever-changing city and its people. He said, ‘I am thrilled to have translated Sankar again, and this time, it’s his life story, which is no less remarkable than his novels.’
About the Author
Sankar is one of the top-selling Bengali writers of all time, with a literary career spanning over seventy years. His novel Chowringhee continues to be a bestseller sixty years after publication.
About the Translator
Arunava Sinha translates fiction, non-fiction, and poetry from Bengali to English and from other languages into Bengali. Over seventy of his translations have been published so far.
About HarperCollins Publishers India
HarperCollins Publishers India is a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers. HarperCollins Publishers India publishes some of the finest writers from the Indian Subcontinent and around the world, publishing approximately 200 new books every year, with a print and digital catalogue of more than 2,000 titles across 10 imprints. Its authors have won almost every major literary award including the Man Booker Prize, JCB Prize, DSC Prize, New India Foundation Award, Atta Galatta Prize, Shakti Bhatt Prize, Gourmand Cookbook Award, Publishing Next Award, Tata Literature Live Award, Gaja Capital Business Book Prize, BICW Award, Sushila Devi Award, Prabha Khaitan Woman’s Voice Award, Sahitya Akademi Award, and Crossword Book Award.
HarperCollins Publishers India also represents some of the finest publishers in the world including Oneworld, Bonnier Zaffre, Usborne, Dover, and Lonely Planet. HarperCollins Publishers India is also the only publisher to have been awarded the Publisher of the Year Award three times: at Publishing Next in 2015, and at Tata Literature Live! in 2016 and 2018.