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Sunil Gangopadhyay (1934-2012): The Artist Returns

(Guest post from Shabnam Nadiya)

Such yearning in the heart, lips that care so much
Still he must go back, must go back
You call this going back? This isn't a pleasure jaunt
The road ends there
Whoever returns to a strange land? You can go. But return?
(Excerpted from The Artist Returns: by Sunil Gangopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha)

            I discovered the Nil-Lohit books at a perfect age: I was about thirteen and had received his book Koishore as a birthday gift. Koishore translates as Adolescence, although the clinical English sorely lacks the poetry drenching the Bangla word. I remember the book still, smaller in size than the usual offerings from Ananda Publishers, barely a hundred pages, a laminated white cover with a window painted in vivid colors. I had no idea who the writer Nil-Lohit was, and the book languished on my desk for months before I picked it up one afternoon. I was utterly transformed as only a teenager in love with words and sorrow can be. Sadness like that: isn’t that what adolescence is for?

            The rest of the afternoon I spent by the calm, green waters of the lake near my house, sitting behind the wide trunk of a Flame Tree. Those Flame Trees had hidden much in those days, and they hid my tears that afternoon as well.

            I cannot say why I wept, why the story of a young girl so unlike me called up tears. But I do remember feeling that if only I could meet Nil-Lohit he would surely understand all that I could not put in words. It was a few more weeks before I realized from the back-cover bio that Nil-Lohit was Sunil Gangopadhyay’s pseudonym. Sunil, whose poetry collections and novels took up a half a shelf’s worth of space in my library. The love that had started years ago when I began reading his YA novels on the adventures of Kaka-Babu (uncle) and Shontu, that was cemented as I grew into an avid reader of poetry, transformed into a personal triumph with the discovery of the Nil-Lohit novels, stories narrated by a bohemian soul who flaneured his way through life.

It was as if this was a shared secret between the poet I would never meet and me; a space no one else could share. For after all, I was his one, true reader, I was the one who understood. All his poetry was mine too—I was the reader whose eyes he sought when he crafted those lines. Love like that: isn’t that what adolescence is for?

***

Sunil Gangopadhyay is a towering figure in Bangla literature, straddling both sides of the border in his life and words. Born in Faridpur, a district in present day Bangladesh, he grew up in Kolkata, India. In 1953, he founded a quarterly little magazine called Krittibas, which went on to shape Bangla poetry for decades to come. That same year a poem of his was anthologized in the seminal collection Love Poems of 25 Years. His first poetry collection was published in 1958. In 1966, he published his first novel Atmaprakash (Self-Revelation) which drew inspiration from Kerouac’s On the Road, but was wholly Bangali in spirit. 

Although poetry forever remained his primary love, he was also a prolific novelist, short story writer, memoirist, travel-writer, with over a hundred books published. Among the many awards he won was the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1985 for his seminal Shei Shomoy (Those Times), a two-volume novel set against the tumultuous and vast backdrop of the 19th century Bengal Renaissance.

             He was invited twice to Iowa City’s International Writing Program ; once in the early years of the IWP, later in 1981. He wrote a book called Chobir Deshe, Kobitar Deshe (In the Land of Images, In the Land of Poetry) where he recounted his time in France and America.

***

            Chobir Deshe, Kobitar Deshe was and remains one of his more popular non-fiction books on our side of the border. Part memoir, part travelogue, the American chapters cover his time at the IWP and his friendship with Allen Ginsberg.

            I remember reading the book as a teenager, and being enamored of the idea of an institution like the IWP, of such nurturing of poets. Of being enamored of the vivid descriptions of Ginsberg. I remember hunting through the shelves of my literature professor father, looking for something by Ginsberg. If Sunil thought him a good poet, surely he must be worth seeking. And I remember becoming mind-blown upon reading September on Jessore Road and Howl, the latter in a boring looking Norton anthology.  Through such connections are our lives made large.

Sunil wrote of his discovery of the French Impressionists, the creative give and take with the Beat Poets and how all of this enriched his world. And thus he enriched ours. He was one of those people who opened up the world for us, who looked upon the world in its varied and diverse beauty and ugliness and sought to show us the same. “At times I think, there’s no use living anymore/At times I think/I’ll see the world to its end!/At times I rage at people/Yet love has to be given to someone.”

[An earlier version of this piece appeared in Bangla at bdnews.com]

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Shabnam Nadiya is a writer and translator, who grew up in Jahangirnagar, a small college campus in Bangladesh. She is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; and is currently working on a collection of linked stories called Pariah Dog and Other Stories.

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