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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 3

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

The party was in full swing at Professor Lambert's house when I arrived with Paul Engle.  I wasn’t invited, but that was alright and normal there.  Gate crashing was quite common at those parties.

There were lots of unknown faces conversing and partying throughout different rooms. The party was going full blast, I must say.

Paul searched the room and dug out Professor Lambert from a corner and said, "Philip, this is Sunil.  I think he needs to ask some delicate questions about his life.  Please spare him a few moments.”

I really didn’t understand whether or not Professor Lambert recognized me from Paul Engle's party. But very cordially he said, "Yes, welcome.  Join the party and start having fun.  I’ll come find you soon."  Paul went off to mingle and I headed into the crowd looking for at least one recognizable face.

Often some words, some accents lodge themselves in your memory.  Paul always called Philip Fill-eep. He knew French, so Philip became Fill-eep.  In written French there are so many silent letters.  Hs are silent in so many of the common words.  Hotel is ’Otel, Henry is ’Enry.  They don't use the sound of the letter H, so why do they then care to write down?   So much paper and so many trees would be saved if the French would take those silent letters out of their writing. "Ha! Ha! Ha!!"

I loved the prose poetry of Henry Misho.  I used to refer him as Henry Misho before Marguerite taught me to pronounce it in French as ’Enry. I remember one day she made me say ’Enry at least twenty times, correcting my pronunciation every time to achieve perfection.  Yet with my Indian intonations I never could mimic Marguerite’s accent.

The bar was full of different drinks and glasses for the invitees so they could choose and serve themselves.  On the side counter there was a pile of sandwiches as well as jam, boiled eggs, and some more bread.

I made a drink for myself and went out to the deck.  This house was in the middle of a forest.  As you looked outside into the darkness you felt as if you were surely at the core of a deep forest. The last time I visited—during the day—I saw two deer.  In the United States, there are too many deer.  I’ve seen deer knocked down on the highway in New Jersey.   I remember when Marguerite saw those deer there she was so happy and excited she clapped her hands for joy.

On one corner of the deck I could see a cluster of seven or eight people.  A few called out my name, "Sunil!  Sunil!  Come here!"

There’s a thrill to it when, at a party, someone sees you and calls out your name.  I recognized Anna as I approached the crowd.  She was wearing a deep blue, long dress and holding a glass of red wine in her hand.  She had long dark hair which flowed down her back.  She always left her hair down; I’ve never seen it tied into a knot or a bun.  Anna said, "Come and join us!"

That year, amongst all the writers who joined the International Writing program, Anna was the most beautiful.  And everyone had seen that.  She was a Hungarian and wrote short stories mostly.  Her husband was also there and looked much older than I did.  I was thirty-three or thirty-four and he seemed to be past sixty.  He too was a famous Hungarian writer.

Anna asked, "Swati, didn’t come?"

"No, she’s gone somewhere else."

"Swati told me she was going to treat me to authentic Indian food, but why haven’t you invited me?"

I said, "That can happen any day.  Tomorrow?"

Immediately, few more people shouted out, "What about us?  We too want Indian food."

Anna declared, "No.  No you guys can come any other day, not tomorrow.  I want to meet Swati and Sunil exclusively.  I need to talk to them about something.  I’m planning to visit Rajasthan soon."

Both Swati and I had a special friendship with Anna.  It was for a strange reason altogether.  Anna was Caucasian by her skin color no doubt, but had long black hair and dark black eyes.  Most Hungarian women have blue eyes, unlike her.  So Anna strongly believed that she was from a Gypsy lineage, and many believe that all the Gypsies who came to Europe were originally from India. That's why she felt so attached to an Indian couple like us.  Her husband was György.  In English, George.

Anna told us her life's story.

Ever since childhood she wanted to be a writer, so she studied literature and then married a writer who was probably twice her age.  Her only obstacle to being a writer was her beauty.  All the editors instead of praising her writing praised her beauty.  Many wanted to date her.  A few famous writers who were her husband's friends advised her to leave writing and join the film industry.

I told Anna, "In ancient Indian writing, in Buddhist script there is a saying that goes something like this, ‘Apna Maanse, Harina Bairi,’ which means, ‘For deer, its own flesh is its main enemy.’  It's true for many women, don't you think?"

The crowd was discussing the American divorce rate.  An Argentinean writer said, "I used to think that divorce rate was quite high in the US, but now I see that's quite not right."

A writer from Sweden jumped in, "From all the Hollywood movies you kind of get that idea, but in reality, the divorce rate is much higher in the Soviet Union."

And the Polish writer Maria, who was about fifty and still single, replied, "You’re in the Midwest.  Don't compare the rest of the US with Iowa. The Midwest is quite conservative.  They don't even drink that much.  Some don't even touch alcohol."

I said, "Compared to the Polish, all Americans drink less.  That's why the French say, ‘Drunk like a Pole.’"
Maria: "That's very nasty of the French.  We have a saying too, ‘If you want to see all the drunkards, better go to France.’"

I didn’t continue the discussion for long, as someone came and said that Monsieur Lambert was looking for me.

I found the handsome Professor Lambert sitting in a corner with all the pretty women around him.  He was still quite attractive even at his age.  I first saw him a long seventeen years ago.  I remember, even then, all his students were in love and attracted to this handsome professor.

Professor Lambert said, "You asked for the telephone number of Dori Gleaves.  That's why I couldn't get in touch with you."

"Actually, I wanted to know about Marguerite Matieu, the French student, who was your PhD student at that time.  Do you happen to know where she is now or otherwise where Dori Gleaves—"

The professor said, "I have no idea where Marguerite is.  She just vanished and didn’t keep in touch with me.  I know about Dori—she had an accident in Mexico and injured her legs pretty badly.  She’s still in Mexico City actually.  Do you know Octavio Paz?"

I said, "Oh ya!  The famous poet!  I’ve read few of his poems but don't know him personally."

Professor said, "He went to India recently.  He’d know about Dori definitely.  She was his secretary for a while.  Call him up and find it out."

He wrote down Octavio Paz's phone number on a party napkin.

But that definitely didn’t help me in any way.

Was it possible to call up a famous poet just like that?  And ask for the phone number of somebody else?   This, I presume, lacks courtesy.

At that time, he was already short listed as potential Nobel winner and was probably a really busy person.  I couldn’t just disturb him with such an insignificant matter.

His phone number remained with me but the call was never made.

Even though Iowa was not amongst the famous Ivy League schools still there was no dearth of activities or programs. One day we attended Ella Fitzgerald’s concert.  It was simply an out of this world experience. We saw the famous Broadway show A Chorus Line. Then we began preparing for Allen Ginsberg's poetry session, though the date was not yet fixed.  I heard Dylan Thomas also came to Iowa for a poetry session.  Dylan was as famous for his poetry as well as for all the stories about his drunkenness.  He totally blacked out while boarding a train from Iowa, and the story goes that he was in the state of unconsciousness for next forty-eight hours.

Dylan was very sick and was barred from alcohol by the doctors.  He quietly slipped into a bar in the West Village, New York and ordered eighteen shots and then built a pyramid with the glasses. The crowd gathered around to see the fun.  He started to drink one after another and said "Is it not a world record?” until he was knocked out and was taken to a hospital.  He never woke up.

The last time I came there was a Broadway show running, called Dylan.  Richard Burton was playing Dylan.  Elizabeth Taylor was still his wife then.  Paul went to New York and brought me along and we stayed in the famous Plaza Hotel near Central Park.  Burton and Liz Taylor were also the guests at the Plaza at that time.  We encountered them a few times in the elevators on our way out and in.  People may laugh out loud, but honestly I didn't find her to be that beautiful or attractive.  She looked like a rubber doll to me.

Interestingly enough, at that same time we saw there was lot of attention and sensation around four young boys who were staying at this same Plaza Hotel. Young men women shouted, cheered, and gathered in front of the hotel as these four boys came in and out of the hotel.

These guys had to hurdle the crowd and had to get into cars in the quickest possible time.  It was 1964, and I hadn't even heard their names before.  That was the first that I ever heard about The Beatles.  I saw them but didn’t hear them.

One day I went with Swati to her rehearsal.  The play was written by a Japanese playwright.  There was full international casting.  The play was about these actors who were in deep thought about the future of human civilization. The storyline was not well-formed, I would say, but the dialogue was definitely very engaging.

Eric was the director as well as the lead of this play.  The play was in English but the accents of the actors were international.  Swati was playing the role of an Indian woman, so her Indian accent was well- suited for the play.

Eric came to me and was praising Swati's acting with much enthusiasm. "Oh, she’s a born actor. Her expressions are quite genuine, and she’s simply superb in her role!" and so on.  And who’s not happy to listen to his wife's praise?   I sat there with a smile like all the credits of my wife's performance went right to me.

But after a while, Eric kind of led me into an embarrassing situation.  He called me aside with the excuse of having a smoke and said, "Sunil, can I ask you something, if you really don't mind?   I really don't know how to start. But I really need to clarify this issue."  

"What's the big deal?  Just say it," I replied to him with curiosity.

Eric: "There’s a scene in the play...  it's almost uneditable.  I’ll have to kiss Swati.  I really don't know whether we can do this realistically or if we’ll have to edit it out, though...  I mean, would you allow it?  Just once onstage?"

This really put me in to a perplexed frame of mind.  I’d never played the role of such a husband ever in my life.  If a person wants to kiss his wife, what does he do?  Does he get angry?  Or stare at the person with a real crashing smile?  Or would he say, "O definitely, go ahead, why only once on stage?  Kiss her as many times as you want during rehearsals..."

But I quickly collected myself and said, "Eric, if it's needed for the play, why are you asking me? Ask Swati.  If she’s comfortable, then I have nothing to say."

Eric, as before said, "Yes, definitely I’ll ask her.  But I thought, ‘first I should seek the permission from the husband.’"

"See, even if I say something, then also it would sound as if I’m trying to exercise my role as a husband.  It's absolutely up to her..."

Rehearsals would go one for some time more, so I just came out.

Maybe because, just now, I played the role of an open-minded, liberal husband!

                            To be continued…


The previous installments of  Memories of Light and Shade were published in our May and July 2009 issues.  To read them, click here.