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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.

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MEMORIES OF LIGHT AND SHADE, PART II

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

This is a continuation of MEMORIES OF LIGHT AND SHADE - PART I from our Apr 2008 issue.

On the way back home, Swati asked me, “Who’s Dory?”

I said, “Dory was one of my friends from here, didn’t I tell you about her?”

Swati answered “No, I’ve never heard her name before.”

We didn’t buy a car when we visited Iowa this time around. I did learn to drive, but hadn’t driven for awhile.  Back in Calcutta we never feel the need to drive our cars. We always have drivers.  Unlike the US, where only multi-millionaires can afford to have chauffeur-driven cars, in India maintaining a driver is quite affordable.  In fact, it helps to create an opportunity for at least one person amongst the millions of unemployed seeking jobs.  So for me, it’s quite impossible to drive a car in the US.

There was always someone to give us a ride, whenever we needed one. Paul also appointed two students to the invited writers to help them to move around.

That day, after the party, Eric was driving us back home. Eric was not a student; he was a young assistant professor in the English department. He didn’t know much about India but seemed quite eager to know about it. He didn’t understand Bengali, so it was impolite to talk in Bengali amongst ourselves when he was in the car. So I told Swati that I would tell her more about Dory later when we got back to our apartment.

Then I asked Eric, “I heard you guys are rehearsing for a play?  When’s it going to be staged?"

We were driving along the banks of the Iowa River. Our apartment complex was called the Mayflower.  It wasn’t very far away.  It was past midnight and there were very few cars on the road.

Eric answered, "September 7th is the Labor Day holiday, and I had hoped to stage the inaugural show on that day, but unfortunately it seems that’ll be almost impossible to do as one of our actors left for Chicago unexpectedly.  We’re in trouble now. We need to find a substitute for her and get her ready.  It looks like we’ll have to postpone the date for sometime in the near future.”

Swati then said, “I went to see the rehearsal the other day.  Susan was acting quite well. Why did she leave for Chicago?"

Eric commented, “She went for a TV commercial, but I don't think she's going to return."

I said, “Here, don’t you have a Theatre and Drama School here?  Can’t you find student actors?’

Eric said, “This is not a Drama School production, it's our own English Department production. Sunil, can I ask you something?”

"Of course!”

"Is your wife Swati is willing to act in the play?  It would be really great for us."

"That you can ask her directly, she’s right here, next to you."

"Really, I am really not aware of all the etiquette in your country; I thought I needed to seek your permission first."

"What ideas do you guys have about India?  Husbands lock up their wives before leaving for work, or what?”

Eric was suddenly embarrassed, "Oh, I really don't know…"

I started laughing loudly and said, "Do you belong to that group of people who still think that we have snakes and tigers roaming around in the city, quite freely, and people lying dead on the sidewalks and naked saints going about hypnotizing common people?"

Eric too started to laugh and said, "God, No! I know that Calcutta is a big metropolis. I read about the city in Allen Ginsberg's Journal. He wrote quite a bit about your big city."

I said, “Men indeed tortured and oppressed women for centuries, but now women have learned how to turn it around. They are taking all the revenge they can. They are the ones who rule now. We men have to abide by them. You know, I’m always shaking—hahaha!  She was a working woman for awhile and, you know, she even acted in a couple of plays. So there is absolutely no question of getting my permission for the play in this case.”

Eric in a surprised tone said, "Are you kidding, she acted in plays too?'

I said, "Yeah, in a couple of them. They were considerable productions and she received acclamations for her roles.”

Swati was shy, "Oh, that was a long time ago.”

Eric responded, requesting, “Madam, if you would kindly consider our play..."

Swati started to refuse profusely, “No, no, how I would be able to act in an English play?  My accent won't be right—"

I interjected, "Don't worry, they’ll teach you the accent!"

Eric said, “No worries about the accent, this is international casting.  One guy is from Argentina, another girl is from the Philippines, another one came from Japan. The story line is also somewhat abstract, not related to a particular country or culture; it could be related to any country ..."

Eric was so excited that when he reached our gate to drop us off he said, "Would you mind if I stayed with you for awhile?  Is it too late?”

For us, it’s never too late for addas [1] . Even though it was already past midnight, we Bengalis never ever care about the time when we are in the adda mood with our friends, discussing any random topic under the sun. Often we are so engrossed, captured, and engaged in our adda sessions that we are oblivious to time and place. The morning sun fills the room and birds come out chirping near our windows, and then we come back to senses.

I welcomed, "Come in! Come in!  Let's have another drink!”

He started to describe the play passionately, as he came in and took his seat. It appeared that he was really on a mission to get Swati to agree to take part in the play.

I also began to love the idea just because it would give Swati an outlet. Instead of just being the wife of a writer she would also have her own identity.

From the very next day Swati took part in the play and started going to rehearsals. She left every afternoon.  I was alone sitting at my desk, writing.  The last time I was in Iowa, I was a poet. I wanted to be a poet, a full time poet. Poetry was my only mission and vision. No prose for me. That was what I had wished for. After my return to Calcutta, being in a vagabond unemployed state for awhile, I was almost pressured to join a newspaper as a journalist. I started writing prose.  The editor asked me to take up the pen for stories and novels. That was the turning point in my career as a prose writer.  Satyajit Ray, the famous director from Bengal, made two feature films based on my novels, and then the editors put more pressure on me to write more prose. I became a regular prose writer and obliged to write prose. Desh, the weekly magazine, began to feature episodes of my novel. I was feeding them the installments from there.

I was still writing poems. Nights were devoted to poetry. Days belonged to prose. My writing table was near a window.  It's pretty impractical to keep the windows open there. The temperature dropped and then it wasn’t particularly comfortable. Drawing the curtains back revealed a few maple trees on one side of the street and, as you looked out, on the other corner you could see the other wing of the building. Just at our level on the seventh floor you could see the window of another apartment, directly across. The curtain of that window was always pulled to one side. A girl lived there, all alone. You could see her moving across the room in her bra and panties, casually and carelessly. I supposed, when she got out of the shower, she wouldn’t have a string of cloth hanging from her body.  All bare, all alone.

While writing, occasionally I had to gape and gaze, collecting and cohering my thoughts together.  And then, I could see her across the way. I was a middle-aged man; I knew it pushed the boundaries of decency to stare at a beautiful naked body belonging to another woman when your wife was not there. Ogling was not desirable on any count.  The very thought of this rebuke of myself made me laugh, but still I got up and drew the curtain halfway back.

On one side of our wall, we had a Botticelli print. A portrait of a Botticelli girl.  Very typical of  his style.   Oval, smooth, egg-shaped.  Then, I discovered, as I stared at the painting for a while, that the chin of the girl in the portrait bore a great deal of resemblance to Dory Gleaves.

I had almost forgotten about her.

I had remembered Dory at Paul Engle’s party the other day while conversing with Professor Lambert. I started recalling everything, one event at a time.  I had told Swati about Dory over the past few days.

Dory’s name might have faded away, but her face was still fresh in my memory. Dory was the first white woman I had kissed. I hadn't met Marguerite yet.

Then I was an inexperienced young guy in my twenties, visiting the US from a far off land called India.  I was yet to know all the etiquette of American culture.  I used to forget to say “Thank you” all the time.  A friend, having returned from the US, warned me that you should never ever get drunk at a party.  “Make sure to have some cookies with butter before you head out for a party, because that helps you to be sober and alcohol has somewhat less of an impact.  And remember, never touch any woman until she extends her hand to greet you, at least within the first few days of meeting her.”

After I landed, Paul Engle introduced me to Dory. She was there to help me out, to get acquainted with the daily chores, on campus and locally.  Dory herself was a poet and a student in the English Department.  She was quite well-built and smart but smoked like a chimney.  I too was guilty of the same offense. On my first day she took me to a supermarket and helped me buy all the necessities for survival. In the evening, when taking off, she told me, “I’ll come again tomorrow and have a date with you.”

I had heard and read about this dating but had no practical experience of it. It was not quite a known concept in India at that time. Guys and girls could not even hang out together. Having a relationship with the opposite sex was meant to be kept secret, and you could meet your girlfriend only by sneaking away from your family.

The next day, Dory and I got together and spent the evening together. We went out and walked by the riverside. You could see couples sitting and walking together hand in hand and enjoying the wonderful weather. Dory was from Mexico City; her mother tongue was Spanish.  She even knew the famous Mexican poet Octavio Paz personally.  We talked about Spanish literature that evening.  My knowledge of Spanish literature at that time was paltry, but a little richer than Dory's knowledge about Indian literature.  I still read Himneth and Lorca. Dory never ever heard about our Rabindranath Tagore.

I had opened a bank account earlier in the day.  A bundle of dollar bills was sitting in my pocket.  It was an eerie feeling.  When I left India, I had mere eight dollars and had never seen so many dollars at a time with anyone, let alone myself. I was indeed feeling rich.

Poverty was my constant companion at that point in my life. I had to manage every penny that I earned. But that day, I just wanted to spend like I never cared.  I invited Dory for dinner and asked her to take us to a fancy restaurant. 

Dory opposed the idea, but I was unwavering and unyielding. I wanted to be careless about my lifelong dearth of funds, at least for the day.  We finally went to a fancy restaurant and had dinner and drank a lot. But still I was sober. I could walk straight and think straight. When Allen Ginsberg was in Calcutta he told me that all those drunken scenes from Hollywood, most of them were artificial.  In the civilized western world intoxication seemed inappropriate, very much more amongst writers and artists. But I guess by the sixties, the intellectuals had gotten hooked in to other kinds of addictions—peyote, mescaline, LSD, marijuana, and other stuff.

On the way back, I walked her to her doorstep. Walking up the stairs, she said, “Good night.”

I also returned her wishes.

She didn’t extend her hand, so there was no question of a handshake on my part. I reminded myself, “Nope.  We should date two more times, maybe three.”

Dory started to giggle and said, “You blockhead, don't you know?  After a date, when you drop her off, you’re suppose to kiss your friend?”

She crossed over and pulled me in to an embrace.

I met up with Dory another three times. But we never got too close to one another because, in the meantime, she had introduced me to her friend Marguerite. They both used to come together and visit me at my apartment. Then, all of a sudden, one day Marguerite came all by herself.  After that Dory neither came to my apartment nor called me on the phone. When we came across each other at parties we just chit-chatted and shared casual words and moved away to meet others at the party.

Later—many days later—it amused me when I thought about it. The best outcome of me meeting Marguerite was that she immersed me in French literature. We read many French poems together and shared the most beautiful poetic discussions.  She told me different versions of the story of Esau, and I later wrote a novel about him. I had managed to learn a few French songs too. If it were not Marguerite, but Dory, by now I would have been more conversed in Spanish literature. Instead of Apollinaire, I would have memorized verses of Unamuno.

I don’t think my relationship with Dory would have lasted long. Though she was a smart and attractive young woman, she was too much practical and close to reality.  She was less interested in discussing poetry and more interested in how to reach publishers and get published. She talked about how editors behave with poets and how agents ignore poets for many good reasons.  She was interested in all the gossip about poets and them fighting with one another and so on. These are common traits in all countries, I guess, but I wasn’t so eager to know about these worldly things.  For me, poetry, and poetry in itself was what mattered to me. At the other end of the spectrum was Marguerite. She was so oblivious to reality, with much less concern about money matters. Her innocence attracted me, drove me to cling to her.

Jean Lambert had assured me that after returning to Texas he would send me Dory’s number.  I thought to myself, “Where is he?  He didn’t call me. This is unusual here in the States. If somebody gives his word he tries to keep it. Maybe he lost my number so he couldn’t follow up with me.”  But then, he could have gotten in touch with Paul Engle.

Then I remembered, Professor Lambert had come to Iowa to sell off his house.  Maybe he was still here? Professor Lambert had said something terrible the other day. Dory could not walk anymore. What had happened to her?

I had met Dory exactly seventeen years earlier. She was four or five years younger than I was. Marguerite and Dory were the same age. So, that meant they were about forty, forty-two now, still considerably young.  I was the one who was now forty-seven, quietly walking toward the milestone of middle-aged.

The most convenient time to call Paul was in the evening, around six, six-thirty. He got back home from school around that time and, while sipping his tea, he replied to all the letters he received.  On average he replied to about ten letters. It was interesting enough that some local newspaper reported as a factoid that Paul wrote about three thousand five hundred letters per year. This was almost a world record for any writer.

Paul never knew Allen Ginsberg personally. They had never even met. Paul wrote in traditional poetic forms while Allen and company were the Beat Generation of revolutionary poets. They revolutionized the poetry world with their non-traditional forms and broke the norms of traditional poetry.

The last time I spoke to Allen over the phone, he asked me, “How is this man Paul?  Let me know how much he really dislikes me, because he’s never invited me to his university for a poetry reading.”

This last question, when I asked Paul directly, really surprised him. “What? All the students are so eager to listen to his poetry. We never approached him to come here because we thought he would immediately decline our proposal. Poets of his genre don’t like traditional poets like us!”

A few days later, I took Paul to Allen’s place in New York City. That was the first time the two of them had met in person. Both shook hands and embraced each other quietly, warmly.

Paul and Allen were similar in that they both had immense zest for writing letters. But Paul typed out each and every letter, while Allen’s were handwritten most of the time.

When I called that evening, Paul said, “Sunil, I am so happy to hear from you, but could you please call back a little later—maybe in half an hour or forty minutes?  I’m kind of tied up with something right now.  Okay—wait, no, don’t worry, tell me…”

I was a little embarrassed and said, “I’m really sorry, I really didn’t mean to disturb you, and I don’t have that urgent of an issue…”

Paul said, ‘No, no, don’t worry, please tell me now.  I really have some time now for you...”

I know that’s how he was, always busy but interested in all matters.

I said, “It’s nothing terribly important.  I just wanted to know whether Professor Lambert, whom I met at your place, has gone back to Texas yet.  I need a little help…”

Paul cut me off in the middle and asked, “What’s the time now? Quarter to seven?  Please get ready by seven-thirty; I’ll pick you up and we’ll go someplace interesting.  Ask Swati to get ready too. Seven-thirty sharp…”

I wasn’t able to say anything else. He had already hung up.

Seventeen years ago, Paul was the same as he was now.  He used to call up abruptly, asking, “I hope you haven’t had your dinner yet. I know Indians usually have dinner late. Get ready, I’ll be over soon and pick you up and we’ll head to someplace interesting.’

Where I could be going, what the occasion was, I had no clue whatsoever.

Once I was enjoying time with Marguerite with a glass of red wine discussing Jean Genet’s novel.  She had come over to my place so we could spend the whole evening together. We had plans to make omelets with mushrooms. But Paul called up, and I could never say no to Paul’s invitations. Paul was so kind and warm to me, more so than to other writers.

He took me along with him to Arizona and Michigan too, only so that I could have new experiences.

Once I travelled with him to Cedar Rapids in Missouri to visit a dying old lady, almost for no reason. Paul’s mother died when he was three or four years of age. He didn’t have any memories or recollections of his mother. This old lady was Paul’s mother’s friend. Paul sat by her bedside, “Auntie, just talk to me about my Mom. How was she?  What was she like? Was she quiet or bubbly? Did she love sunshine or did rainfall make her happy?  Did she always dress up or keep things simple. Did she love poetry?”

It was indeed a strange experience from my perspective.  A fifty-five year old man with the curious mind of a little boy was building up an image of his mother. I was happy that Paul took me along that day. For that very reason it was sometimes hard for me to turn down his untimely invitations. Moreover Paul was not aware of my plans to spend time with Marguerite. Anyone from Iowa would have easily disclosed such a relationship from its inception, and for me it was a very private affair.

Our evening was just warming up as planned, and then there this sudden call and invitation to join Paul.  I really used to feel sad leaving her alone on those evenings, but Marguerite never ever stopped me from going either.

She told me, “Okay, you better go. Have fun and eat good food, but I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here, sleeping in your bed.”

It was September, winter had not yet arrived. You still didn’t need warm clothes.  A casual shirt and trousers were pretty comfortable. I was wearing trousers, so I just grabbed a shirt and went down to meet Paul. He came and picked me up in his car and drove to our destination, unknown to me.

There was no point in asking, “Where are we headed?”  I knew the answer would be, “Hold your breath and wait until you get there!”

The car stopped in front of a house, somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Then Paul said, “This is my friend, Van Allen’s, residence. You’ve met him, haven’t you?”

I nodded in agreement.

Van Allen was a famous scientist, a Nobel Laureate in physics.  I had met him couple of times; was very humble, polite, and soft spoken. We have so few of these Nobel Laureates, so anybody who gets it becomes a big celebrity. There was always a big buzz around him. Here, there were so many of them, that nobody really singled them out. The University of Chicago had twenty-eight Nobel Laureates.  You would bump into them frequently on campus. They were so reachable and regular people. Van Allen also lived like a normal guy in Iowa.

Van Allen was sitting outside on his porch. I immediately thought we were having dinner at his place. But then I wondered where other guests were. I saw none around.

Van came and greeted us and then said, “Paul, I’m ready, good to go.”

Then he hesitantly said, “Sunil, please have a seat.”

Then he took Paul to one side and talked in low voice, discussing something, and I felt I was the topic of their conversation. I started wondering, “Have I made some mistake?”

Paul came back and said, “Sunil, I hope you don’t mind. They’ve opened a new restaurant here. The food is very good, and it’s gotten rave reviews. But there’s one problem about getting in there…”

Instantaneously and almost involuntarily I said, “Because of my skin color, they will not allow me?  So what, don’t worry, you guys go, and I can easily walk back to my apartment.”

 Paul scolded me softly and said, “Skin color? Are you crazy? We don’t have such things in Iowa. Nobody is bothered by skin color. The problem is elsewhere. This is a very fancy and formal restaurant and they have a dress code.  You’re only wearing a shirt, but they require a jacket to get in.”

  I said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. It’s alright, you two go and I’ll go back.  I really don’t mind.”

  I was thinking, “This way it’ll be good for me.” I could go back early and surprise Marguerite.

 Paul said, “Why would you go back?  No way.  Just tuck in your shirt, and Van will lend you one of his jackets. He has quite a few of them.  Just try a few and wear the one that fits you the best.”

 Van brought out a few. He was more or less of my build, so one of the jackets really fit me well.   

  Paul came forward and said, “Wow, this looks great, but…”

 Again, but?

  I was just wearing a shirt and trousers. No belt.  But once I tucked in my shirt, I needed a belt. Van again went in, brought out a few belts for me to try on, one of them, just like the jacket, fit me well.

  Van said, “This is fine, you don’t need a tie.”

 Now we were finally good to go. Suddenly, Paul busted out in laughter, directly looking at me. Van too joined him in few seconds.

  I was totally clueless about what was going on and said, “What’s happened now?” I really had no clue about the meaning of their laughter.

  Paul, still laughing, said, “Sunil, you’ve got Van Allen’s belt around your waist!”

  Then it came to me in a flash of a moment. Van Allen had won the Nobel Prize in physics for discovering a constellation of stars which is known as Van Allen’s Belt. And literally, I was wearing Van Allen’s belt.

 After long seventeen years, Paul was asking me to join him on another such adventure.  Swati would not join us. She had already left for rehearsal and would not be back before eight. I wrote her a note and stuck it to the refrigerator.

 I had no idea what was waiting for me. 


To be continued..