Biography
Sunil Gangopadhyay was born in 1934 in Faridpur in what is now Bangladesh. He received his Master's degree in Bengali from the University of Calcutta in 1954. He has been associated with the Ananda Bazar group, a major publishing house in Kolkata for many years and is currently the President of the Sahitya Akademi. Author of well over 200 books, Sunil is a prolific writer who has excelled in different genres but declares poetry to be his "first love." He was the founder editor of KRITTIBAS, a seminal poetry magazine that became a platform for a new generation of poets experimenting with many new forms in poetic themes, rhythms, and words. His Nikhilesh and Neera series of poems (some of which have been translated as “For You, Neera” and “Murmur in the Woods”) have been extremely popular. As in poetry, Sunil is known for his unique style in prose. ARJUN, PRATIDWANDI (THE ADVERSARY), filmed by Satyajit Ray, ARANYER DIN-RAATRI (THE DAYS AND NIGHTS OF THE FOREST, also filmed by Satyajit Ray), ABAR ARANYA (filmed by Gautam Ghosh), EKAA EBONG KOYEKJON are some of his well known works of fiction. His historical fiction SEI SOMOY (translated into English by Aruna Chakravorty as THOSE DAYS) received the Indian Sahitya Akademi award in C141985. SEI SOMOY continues to be a best seller more than a decade after its first publication. The same is true for PRATHAM ALO (also translated recently by Aruna Chakravorty as FIRST LIGHT), another best selling historical fiction and PURBO-PASCHIM, a raw depiction of the partition and its aftermath seen through the eyes of three generations of Bengalis in West Bengal, Bangladesh and elsewhere. He is also the winner of the Bankim Puraskar and the Ananda Puraskar.

MEMORIES OF LIGHT AND SHADE, Part 4

- by Sunil Gangopadhyay (Translated from the Bengali by Mousumi Dutta Roy)


There was a time when Allen and I used to communicate regularly by mail. There were no personal computers or emails, and telephone was not by any means cheap. In fact it was very expensive and the connection was terrible too. Sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke predicted that by the end of the 20th century there would be immense development in communication around the world. This has become a reality that we then living in the 60s and 70s could not even believe. Post was the most important mode of communication across continents and countries then.

Some writers had a soft spot for writing letters and often their creative process was immortalized in letters. The art of letter writing was considered to be an important branch of literature. Rabindranath Tagore also wrote numerous letters to his friends, families, fans and to his readers. An anecdote goes that Charles Baudelaire wrote six letters to his mother a day. Paul Engle, on average, used to write more than four thousand letters a year and would probably hold the world record for it.

Allen used to write many letters longhand. He always used cursive handwriting, and at times it was not quite legible. Later in life, he would also send typed letters.  It was a difficult task to read Allen’s handwriting, and I always had to read a couple of times to understand everything that he wrote.  Once I got a letter from Allen informing me that he was travelling to Europe to start a revolution. It was a kind of interesting revolution that he mentioned. The revolution was ‘Lemar’- Legalize Marijuana.  Marijuana is also known by the name Indian hemp, and in pure Bengali we call it ganja.  As you know, in many countries around the world use of marijuana is illegal. In our country it is illegal too; the exception is for religious purposes. Our God Shiva and his followers, the saints and sandhus need ganja, otherwise smoking ganja in public is not permitted.
 
Marijuana was very popular with Allen and the other Beat Generation writers.  Later hippies embraced it and clung to it as part of their identity. Even today it’s kind of popular among young people for getting high. It was in vogue for women. And anything that’s illegal has to be expensive, so was marijuana. When I was in Tucson, Arizona, a young couple came to visit me just to have a smoke of ganja secretly.  They had this fantasy of smoking ganja in the company of an Indian man. Strange enough, I guess.

Allen and his friends claimed that smoking marijuana didn’t cause any health problems. It’s not an issue to ban it; in fact their claim was that marijuana increased creativity for them. They cited many medical studies to prove that, unlike alcohol, marijuana was not guilty of any adverse health issues, and it was even safer than cigarettes.  They argued that cigarettes could cause cancer but marijuana did not.  Prof. Timothy Leary* was also a famous proponent of legalizing marijuana. According to him, it was much healthier to offer marijuana to his guests than tea coffee or any drinks. He proposed that if marijuana were legalized, then the price would fall and it would benefit all.

These group had series of satyagrahas (non-violent protests) in front of the White House and had discussions with the press spokesperson on this issue. Promotions were continuing in different states in favor of the use of marijuana. Since you could not promote something that was illegal, they were using


*Dr. Timothy Francis Leary was an American writer, psychologist, futurist, and advocate of psychedelic drug research.
different ways to endorse it. One of the witty ways they used to promote it in California was using the green theme. “Keep California Green” was the theme of the poster that was surfacing all over the state. Apparently, it advocated for a greener environment but those who knew understood what it was for.

When Allen went to Europe to spread the message of this “green” revolution it really didn’t work. Compared to America, Europe was much more conservative at that time. Any kind of revolution was quite impossible in the Communist nations. The Czechoslovakian government threw him out of the country.  The charges against Allen were that he was trying to instigate the youth to go in the wrong direction. A few days later Allen got arrested at a poetry reading in Italy. He was wearing a green Punjabi shirt and had a scarf, with long hair and beard falling below his chest. He looked just like an Indian sandhu. There he was arrested for the indecency in his poems.

Can poetry ever be indecent?  Allen stood up at the podium in court, and he said then, “I expressed my unconsciousness in my poetry!  And I have nothing more to say!”

Writers like me from all over the world signed a petition and sent it to the Italian government to free Allen.

Anyway, I remember that my girlfriend Marguerite never really liked Allen.  Nor did she appreciate Allen as person nor did she like his poetry. It had been a year and half or so since I was introduced to Marguerite. We spent a lot of time together. We traveled together. We enjoyed each other’s company. Those were the days—night after night, we had our own poetry sessions. We read poetry, we discussed poetry, we lived poetry.  Allen gave me the mantra to write poetry. He told me that I would have to sacrifice a lot in order to write poetry. I would have to give up the dream of a comfortable life, decent earnings if I dared to write poetry. Those were luxuries that I would have to forego if I ever want to be poet. Honestly, nobody said that to me before. I was fascinated and became a dedicated fan and admirer of Allen Ginsberg. I got in touch with him after I came to the US.  He invited me to stay at his Lower East Side apartment in Manhattan.

Whenever I talked to Marguerite and somehow Allen came in to the discussion, Marguerite immediately would get stern and serious. This posed a real problem for me.  One of them was my best friend and other one was my girlfriend, and I could not bring up my best friend’s name in front of my girlfriend; that was a real challenge that I was trying to cope up with. Allen, however, was not aware of Marguerite until then.

The evenings when I had nowhere to go and no one was scheduled to visit me, Marguerite and I used to sit down in the cozy nook of my apartment with red wine and poetry.  I even gave up whiskey for wine, all because of Marguerite.  Incessant poetry sessions used to be the focal point of our lives. We’d take breaks to cook and eat but return to poetry, the love of our lives. This is how I got immersed in French poetry.

Marguerite never appreciated American poetry.  I even told her, “You are here in the US for a couple of years.  You love poetry so much, yet you will never read American poetry.  How can this be so?”

Marguerite’s lipstick liberated lips would turn red, and twisting and turning them she used to retort, “What is there in American poetry?  Only noise.  Where is the poetry in it?  If you compare it with French poetry...”

Jokingly I used to say, “Why do you always compare?  I hope you know that at least one American poet once inspired the French poets.  It was Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry that influenced and triggered the new French revolution in poetry.”

Marguerite would totally spurn this idea and say, “Do you consider Poe to be poet? Who remembers him as poet?  Everyone knows him for mystery and the macabre.  So serving as inspiration to French poets is just a rumor.”

Every time I wanted to read Allen Ginsberg’s poems to her, she would stop me after few lines, “Is this poetry?  What is this?  Where is the essence of poetry in this?  It’s just good prose.”

I used to insist, “This is the new wave in poetry, breaking away from old lyrical forms. No rhymes and reasons in it. Even though it’s written in prose form, it’s not prose!  There is a limit and boundary between prose and poetry.  It’s extremely difficult to maintain that distinction. And Allen is so capable of doing so. His poetry is not prose. French Poet Henry Misho also had the same style!”

Still, Marguerite could not agree with me and said, "Somehow I really don't get the poetic elements and the elegance in that poetry..."

I realized Marguerite still could not appreciate modern styles of writing poetry. Amongst the French poets, Marguerite’s favorite was Guillaume Apollinaire.  She would read his poems out loud to me. Just by listening many times, I even memorized few lines.  I have a collection of his poems, Bestiaire.  This book contains references to many animals and insects.  All the poems in this book are simple allusions to animal world. I could fluently recite few of these allegorical poems from this book. One of them, I recollect, was like this in translation:

Tireless striving brings riches,
Poor poets, work on! Work on!
Can’t you see, the caterpillar’s
Relentless labor
Becomes an amazing butterfly

Amazingly, Guillaume Apollinaire became the bridge between Marguerite and Allen Ginsberg.

One evening, Marguerite and I were attempting to cook our dinner in my small kitchen. She was teaching me how to add the olive oil, drop by drop to the egg to make mayonnaise and alternately humming a tune on her own. Totally out of context, I remembered something and said, “Marguerite, you don’t like Allen Ginsberg, but do you know that he loves your favorite poet, Apollinaire?”  With surprise in her eyes, she said, “Oh really? How do you know that?”

“Allen has told me many times himself.  And he also wrote a poem about Apollinaire!”

“What poem?  Does your friend know French?”

“I guess yes, at least some French definitely. He has a good knowledge of French literature.  And the name of the poem is ‘At Apollinaire’s Grave.’  Allen went there and he wrote about it.”

Now, she got all excited, “Père Lachaise! His grave is in this cemetery in Paris. Could you read that poem to me?’

I came out of the kitchen, brought the book out, and started reading aloud.

I saw tears rolling down Marguerite’s cheeks. I put my arm around her shoulder and said, “What happened?’

With her voice cracking, she said, “This is honestly written. Apollinaire’s life was quite sad. So few knew him when he was dying. During the First World War, he was wounded. He had injuries to his head and such pain…”

We continued talking about Apollinaire for some time. Our dinner on the stove was burning quietly.  

It must have been a total coincidence, maybe telepathy, but fairly amazing what else happened that evening.
 
The phone started ringing. As I picked up the phone, to my surprise, I could hear Allen on the other side.

Allen never had a great impression of Iowa City, a little known city in the Midwest. He believed everyone in Iowa City was very conservative.  He thought they didn’t appreciate foreigners, so he regularly called up to inquire about my well-being.  Before, whenever I asked Marguerite whether she was interested in talking to Allen, every time she vehemently opposed the idea. On one hand, she did not like his poems.  On the other hand, she did not condone his lifestyle.  Allen was a self-proclaimed homosexual, and coming from a strict Catholic family, it was difficult for her to accept homosexuality. She even denounced it.

But that evening was special; she was signaling to me across the room that she wanted to talk to Allen Ginsberg.  So I told Allen, “A French lady wants to talk to you, do you have a minute or two?”

They talked for about fifteen minutes that day. They talked some in French and some in English. After hanging up, she seemed mesmerized by Allen. She said, “Oh what a wonderful person he is.  There is no American hypocrisy in his tone.  His voice is so honest and saintlike.”

I said, “Indeed, he is a saint. He is modern day saint who is gay, bohemian, and lives in an apartment.  But his spiritual revelations and thirst are true and sincere.”

En route to our second term in Iowa, Swati and I stopped in Paris for few days. Our host was our friend Ashim Ray.  I had come to Paris before with Marguerite.  At that time I did not know Ashim, or for that matter any Bengalis in Paris. Marguerite took me to all the famous places in Paris. All day long, we roamed around the city.  Then for lunch we would choose a city garden and share our sandwiches with red wine.  Paris is one city that never bores you. You can visit the city all over again and be amazed.  For Swati, this was her first time. She was enjoying every bit and amazed at everything that she saw.  She studied French at Kolkata’s Institute Alliance Française and had always dreamt of coming to Paris. I could see the dream she was living in her eyes and face.

After spending a few days in museums and art galleries, I asked Ashim, “Could you please take us to visit Père Lachaise Cemetery?”

Ashim was so surprised. How could a cemetery be a place of interest to tourists?  Another friend of ours, Preeti Sanyal, was with us for this tour. Both Preeti and Ashim had lived in Paris for years, yet neither of them were aware of this cemetery.  We searched the map and located it. After we reached it, all of us realized that it was indeed a famous place and was full of other tourists and visitors. Père Lachaise Cemetery is famous and huge.  I really don’t know if there is another such beautiful cemetery in the world. It is architecturally rich, elegant, and grand.  It has been standing there for few centuries, holding the remains of numerous people, both famous and ordinary.  There, the poor and rich lay side by side in peace.  Some of the graves are quite ornamental while others are simple.  Different monuments scattered throughout its huge grounds.  

It’s difficult to find a specific grave within this huge space, but they had given us a map at the entrance.  Ashim Ray, my friend, was a map expert.  Still we couldn’t locate Apollinaire’s grave, even after few times around the grounds. “But how could that be?” I wondered.  Allen wrote in his poem that he had sat on Apollinaire’s grave, and it couldn’t be a mistake or lie.  We could even find Apollinaire’s name on the map, but where was it?  The name was on the map in alphabetical order, but the exact location was hard to find.  We kept missing it because all the kings and princes and other famous people had huge gravestones adorned majestically.   The poet’s grave, a small and undistinguished, was lost in the midst of the richness and the grandeur.  We were exhausted by the process of searching, but finally we found it. Our eyes were drawn towards a small, unattended, and simple grave.  No flowers and it seemed nobody cared.

After visiting the graveyard, Ashim asked me, “Sunil! Why Apollinaire’ grave? There are so many other famous French poets and writers.  Why him?”

I then explained the whole episode with Marguerite and Allen to them.

Preeti turned around and asked Swati, “Tell me, Swati, your husband, Sunil, talks about Marguerite all the time.  He has written about her so many times.  Don’t you get angry?  Or even feel jealous?”

Swati laughed it off, “No, not at all!  I’ve told Sunil that whatever he did or had before marriage, I don’t care about it. But now don’t even dare!  I too had one or two love affairs before our marriage!  All the more, I like hearing about Marguerite. I wish I had met her.  I think we could have been great friends.”

     Preeti said, “That’s true. When I read about her, I also want to meet her and talk to her.  Where is she now?”

I said, “No idea.”

Swati said, “Marguerite used to write to me. She wrote a couple of letters to me in Kolkata. Then suddenly, she vanished, and we have no trace of her.”

Now, I asked Ashim, “I would like visit one more place in Paris: Hotel Chat Noir in Montmartre.  It could be a hotel or it could be a night club!”

Ashim asked, “And it appears in which poem?”

I said, “Not in a poem, in a song.  I’ve heard it a lot, and this song seemed to be a very popular one at that time here. Marguerite taught me this song. It goes like this:

Je cherche fortune,
Autour du Chat Noir,
Au clair de la lune,
A Montmartre !
Je cherche fortune
Tout autour du Chat Noir
Au clair de la lune
A Montmartre, le soir…”

I didn’t sing the whole song. Both Ashim and Preeti were quite acclimated to Paris so they would have found lot of flaws in my French. And I had forgotten many words in the mean time.

The meaning of the song goes something like this, “I look for fortune, around the Black Cat.”  Chat noir means “black cat.” I am looking for rich customers near this Black Cat Hotel, when the clear moon shines brightly on Montmartre!  

This is a prostitute’s song. The tune is touching and sentimental and it lives with you and grows on you.  The song is sad and melancholic.  The girl cannot find any customers that night, and she thinks she might buy food for her people with her income. Her people are waiting for food at home.  So she goes to a grocer and pleads, “Dear grocer, please lend me some food today.  I promise to pay you back on Monday.”

In French, je n'a pas d'argent means I have no money.  Throughout the whole song, this line was a favorite for us.  Marguerite and I used to put our monthly scholarship money in a bowl at the beginning of the month and used to spend it from there. The first few days of the month we were like prodigal sons.  At the end of the month we would realize that we did not even have a dollar to spare.  Those were amusing moments for us, and we together would sing aloud je n'a pas d'argent, je n'a pas d'argent…

That night in Montmartre we couldn’t find the Chat Noir.  Maybe the name changed.

Here’s Allen Ginsberg’s poem in memory of Apollinare.


AT APOLLINAIRE'S GRAVE

. . . voici le temps
Où l'on connaîtra l'avenir
Sans mourir de connaissance

I
I visited Père Lachaise to look for the remain of Apollinaire
the day the U.S. President appeared in France for the grand
conference of heads of state
so let it be the airport at blue Orly a springtime clarity in the
air over Paris
Eisenhower winging in from his American graveyard
and over the froggy graves at Père Lachaise an ill sory mist as
thick as marijuana smoke
Peter Orlovsky and I walked softly thru Père Lachaise we both
knew we would die
and so held temporary hands tenderly in a citylike miniature
eternity
roads and streetsigns rocks and hills and names on everybody's
house
looking for the lost address of a notable Frenchman of the Void

to pay our tender crime of homage to his helpless menhir
and lay my temporary American Howl on top of his silent
Calligramme
for him to read between the lines with Xray eyes of Poet
as he by miracle had read his own death lyric in the Seine
I hope some wild kidmonk lay his pamphlet on my grave for God
to read me on cold winter nights in heaven
already our hands have vanished from that place my hand writes
now in a room in Paris Git-Le-Coeur