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Chronicler of chaos

Sunil Gangopadhyay combined the ethos of socialism with the verve of Beat poetry

Written by Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari | Published: October 24, 2012 2:52 am

A pall of sadness fell over Durga Puja festivities all over India as news of the demise of one of Bengal’s most illustrious writers spread. Sunil Gangopadhyay was a path breaking poet,novelist,critic and essayist who spearheaded the new wave in Bengali literature in post-Independence India. Along with his friends Dipak Majumdar and Ananda Bagchi,he founded the epoch-making poetry magazine Krittibas in 1953,which forever changed the landscape of Bengali poetry. Their famous rasta rokos on the streets of Kolkata drew attention to their brand of experimental poetry,which was infused with the ethos of socialism and the verve of Beat poetry. Gangopadhyay was one of the early participants of the International Writers’ Workshop at Iowa,which brought him into close contact with some of the biggest names in Beat poetry,including the celebrated Allen Ginsberg. He often recounted how powerful his drive to write in Bengali was. It forced him to tear himself away from a comfortable life in America and accept the uncertainties and insecurities of living by the pen in the confusion and chaos of a newly independent India. But Gangopadhyay succeeded like few other writers did,and left an indelible mark on post-Independence Bengali — and Indian — literature.

A prolific writer,who,in his youth,carried reams of paper in his jhola,to write “whenever he could,wherever he could”,Sunil Gangopadhyay authored over two hundred books. This includes novels,collections of poetry and essays,travelogues,criticism,and children’s fiction. He wrote not only as Sunil Gangopadhyay but also under pen names like “Nil Lohit”,“Sanatan Pathak” and “Nil Upadhyay”. His most popular poetry collections,such as Smritir Sahar and Ami Kirakam Bhabey Bechey Achhi,celebrate his singular voice: alive with the intelligence of the common man,aching with nostalgia and smouldering with moral indignation. His Neera and Nikhilesh poems are household names in West Bengal and Bangladesh. In his children’s fiction,he created the character of Kakababu,the detective on crutches,who rivals Satyajit Ray’s famous sleuths,Feluda and Professor Shonku,in popular appeal.

The image of the “angry young man” that he created in his early novels,Pratidwandi and Aranyer Dinratri — both made into celebrated films by Ray — not only took Bengali literature and cinema by storm but also became one of the most potent symbols of the restless New India,sweeping the Hindi cinema of the 1970s and ’80s,and capturing the imagination of the entire nation. His historical fiction Sei Samay (translated as Those Days) and Pratham Alo (First Light),captured the cultural churning of the Bengali Renaissance and explored the formation of a Bengali selfhood as it laid bare the ambition and the contradictions of characters like Michael Madhusudan Dutt. His novel Purbo-Paschim (East-West) is a landmark in Partition literature,evoking the heartbreak and turmoil caused by the division of Bengal.

Sunil Gangopadhyay won almost every major literary award including the Ananda Puraskar,the Sahitya Akademi Award,the Bankim Puraskar and the Saraswati Samman. In 2002 he was made the sheriff of Kolkata,and in 2008,he was elected as the president of Sahitya Akademi.

One of Gangopadhyay’s last novels was Moner Manush,(translated as The Fakir) on the legendary poet,Lalan Fakir,a rather Kabir-like figure. Fakir epitomises the irrepressible life-energy that drove and sustained most of Gangopadhyay’s restless and youthful characters. To be alive in the flux of a changing world,to make sense of the change and the fire of one’s passions,to love the world and record it for all of time — that is what Sunil Gangopadhyay himself did with a grace,ease and compelling power that few of his contemporaries could match.

The writer is a poet and vice-president of the Sahitya Akademi,express@expressindia.com

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