Oral history interview with Sankha Ghosh

Ghosh, Sankha
Manjapra, Kris
2010-01-12

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Participants
SG
Shankha Ghosh, interviewee (male)
KM
Kris K. Manjapra, interviewer (male)

Interviewed in Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Kris Manjapra

This object is in collection:
Bengali Oral Histories
Subjects
Intellectual history
Personal narratives
Decolonization
Postcolonialism
Independence movements
Oral history
Bengali Intellectuals Oral History Project
India
South Asia
West Bengal (India)
Bangladesh
Permanent URL
http://hdl.handle.net/10427/78027
http://hdl.handle.net/10427/78027
ID: tufts:MS165.001.022.00001
To Cite: DCA Citation Guide
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This is a Calcutta or Bengali intellectual History, oral history interview, conducted on January 12th, 2010, in Kolkata with Professor Sankha Ghosh. Professor Ghosh it’s a great honor to have this time, thank you for making time. And I wanted to begin this interview with the way that all interviews so far have begun which is just by situating your birth place and birth date and then will go from there. So when you born and where you born?
SG
Well, I was born on 5th of February, 1932, and place of the birth is Chandpur, Chandpur its near Dhaka–now East Bengal–now infact Bangladesh. But at that time it was termed as East Bengal. But Chandpur is not my paternal place, its… my… mother’s parents house. Infact I am from Barisal… in the village called Mararipara, that was my village…that’s all.
O.k. so… now before… let say in the early period of your childhood, can you describe what kind of family you grew up in? In terms of perhaps the religious orientation background, also perhaps the political orientation given you know the… this time of enough… the lead up to independence. What was your family like?
SG
Well, before that I will have to clarify one thing. I was born in Chandpur, that is in the Dhaka District. But I am a child of Barisal, Manok Bari was Barisal District, North East Bengal. But I grew up properly in another official town that is known as ‘Pakhshi,’ it is in Pabda District, North Bengal, not exactly north Bengal– but usually before partition we used to term it as North Bengal.
SG
I spent my childhood days in that small official town. We are a big family, each year during the puja days– you have a one month holiday– we used to spend that time in our home village that is Banisbara. There my uncle’s, aunt’s, all got together and that was a festive time for all of us–and we felt that we are a big family at that…my father had five more brothers and one sister, they had their children–all of them got together in that village home. And… after that time when we left the village for the less… eleven months, we could feel that we are, we are not a single unit family. I always felt that I have my brothers there, and there, and there–the others relatives. In that sense we … we are quite big family. And my fathers unit– you know that during those days there was the family planning and then I was…the earlier generation quite a number of children.
SG
I for example am the fourth child of my parents, and after me there is four more–we are eight brothers and sisters–that is our family. In our part of the family, there was no indigenous bias or indigenous .. religious aptitude at all. It’s interesting that we are eager, all the time, when shall we go to village, during the puja times– and we used to enjoy the time very.. very much. We had Puja, Durga Puja even in our own house–in that village practically every house had their own Durga Puja. It’s not like this.. now it is in Calcutta–I don’t know weather you know there is “Baroyari Puja’s”, say for whole para– they get there, they assemble together and make a single Puja. For this… for example, this housing, this housing has a Puja, it’s for all the in tenants of the houses. But… it was, it was… we couldn’t think of that, no child even thought that–everyone has their Puja. But this puja has no religious effect on us.
SG
It was always seen as a festive festivity. My father, and my mother also, they didn’t bother about any worshiping or any sort of rituals in that. So in a way I had been brought up… in a… secular concept of life. But that is our family. The place where we grew up… that was not exactly like that. In fact I should mention one more thing, that why we spent our childhood in that small town. My father was the Head master of a school, in that school was that …in that…we saw there was some…some… we thought its unusual, that, the other inhabitance–mostly teachers–they were were sort of orthodox. For example they would not touch–the Brahmins, would not touch the non-Brahmin teachers feet– you know there is custom in Bengal to pay respect to the elders by touching.
SG
But if the students, if they'd be Brahmins… they would not touch the feet of non-Brahmins teachers. That was there I think, but I saw this things. So the surroundings was not very secular but fortunately my own family atmosphere was different.
How long did you spend
SG
How long did you spend… in…the village… before your next move?
SG
In the village, I mean in our village…
in where you are being educated, you went to school…
SG
Yes, I went to school…that was not exactly a village that is a…
that was a district town or so…
SG
Not a district town, it’s a very small official town. Its a very interesting small town, with having all the good qualities of the village, and all the good qualities of a town–we were fortunate of that–it was situated just on the river Paddha, and… behind this… or it was railway colony in fact–in front of the colony there was Paddha, on the back side there was a forest, and on right hand side and left hand side there were two small villages. So all together it had the atmosphere of village with all the… opportunities and, all the good things about you know the..of the town. There I lived… you asked me, how long did you…
How long did you live?
SG
I was…when I was fifteen, I left that place– when I was fifteen I passed the school final examination–it was known as matriculation examination at that the time–and at the age of fifteen there was partition. So I think it is very important for… had been important for me, that when I was just growing up, I passed my boyhood and inched into my youth, at that change the partition happened; I passed my school, and entered the college, and left the small official town, came to Calcutta–that was it. Another thing for me… I was admitted to the school, when I was ten, and I was admitted to class six. Upto the age of ten I had no regular educational course… it is astounding because my school, my father’s school, it was situated only one minutes away from my home. My friends all, they used to go to school and from 10:00 to 5:00 I was all alone, I have nothing to do because my friends are all, have gone to school, so I had nothing to do.
SG
If not…upto this date, I am not… I am not quite sure why my father decided to keep me out of this school, of the school where he was headmaster. It could be possibly that he thought that… up to an age…but particularly this situational education is not necessary–my father in fact was very much influenced by Rabindra Nath Tagore. That may be the case but in that because there should be an alternative arrangement, there should be some sort of arrangement at home so that I can continue to do my studies, but there was no such arrangement also. We have some books, we could read, we could even not to if we didn’t like to read–nobody bothers. My mother sometimes told us… get a book, try to read, don’t waste your time–my mother sometimes told like this but that was it. At the age of 10 I almost insisted and cried in fact.
SG
Why shouldn’t I go to school? I must get admitted. And my father did that with…he was pleased that I was insisting on being admitted to the school. But on fine… on hind sight I feel that… it had…somehow…it gave me a sort of freedom at that time, that had been helpful for me for future. And at the same time…I had missed those years of disciplined education and I always feel that…therefore I had…I had missed also something… it was that mixed feeling about that–sometimes I feel that was very good that I was not admitted at that time as I had free time, and sometimes I feel that… well that the discipline time was necessary, perhaps I could have done better if I had that school training at that time…
So, so thats very interesting, you began your studies… at age 10 in grade six…
SG
regular studies.
regular studies yeah, and did you…in the years before you… took the school leaving exam, what was…what were your interests at that time and how did you find your path, or would you say by the time you finished this school period you were still not sure where your interests were reaching.
SG
No…I think I was more or less sure, because… one thing that my father was… clear, he had done his M.A in Bangla literature, so we had a atmosphere of literature, in our home and… Rabindra Nath (Rabindra Nath tagore) was a big influence also at that time.
SG
From…even before I came to school, at the age of 9, I began to be fascinated by Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore). Should I tell you where…how, how did it happen?
Yes, yes.
SG
I told you that my father was sort of Tagorite, he was very… he tried to follow what Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore) had said about education and life and everything. And in that school, every year, Tagore’s (Rabindra Nath Tagore) birthday… used to be celebrated, quite gorgeously.
SG
In 1941, when Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore) was 80– in August he died, in May it was his 80th birthday–and that was being celebrated in my school. I was not in the school at that time, but my father was directing a play to be staged by the students– the play was “Mukta Dhara” the English name would be Water fall. I used to watch the rehearsal and somehow I was touched by the procedure. I didn’t understand everything, but I thought I should go through the text…and one afternoon, at the age of 9, I went through the whole book… and I can’t explain how fascinated I was, and from that moment on I was a follower of Tagore, I was a reader of Tagore. This "Mukta Dhara" –do you know anything about this play.
No.
SG
Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore) wrote a number of plays which have been termed as symbolist plays, allegorical plays, and the professors and critics are always… said… that… most of them are very unintelligible, difficult and somewhere…somewhere I feel, critics have already… have…have denounced the whole thing– there is nothing at all. But very strangely, at that age of 9, I understood something of that play, because there is a story line…and through that storyline you get something, which can be enriched by further understanding afterwards–but you get something at least.
SG
So I have from that…from that time on, I have thought that critics are not always justified. They miss the common man's point of view. I was not… I couldn't formulate at that time these words, but afterwards I could formulate it. And I have tried to read Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore) from the common man's point of view, also in my life after that. But what was I…
The… what was your… after you discovered Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore) at age 9…
SG
Oh yes…
How did you find your path in his works? How did you discover your own path and…
SG
First of all, I got interested in Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore), and… after 2 or 3 years –Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore) died at that time– and after that year, a few memoires about Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore) had been published. Of them, two were very important I think– one by Promoartho Nath Bisir, "Rabindra Nath o Shanti Niketan," Tagore and Shanti Niketan– his experience as a student there. Another is by Moitry Debi, "Monoputer Rabindra Nath." When Rabindra Nath (Rabindra Nath Tagore) was 77 he spent sometime in… Himalayan place, Monpur, near Darjeeling.
SG
And he frequently went to the place after that– from 1938 to 1940, he visited the place five times. Moitry Debi had written a day to day account of that–living with Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore). These two books influenced us immensely. That was when I was 12 or 13–I read these books, because I got in touch with his personal life and at the same time, his way of life, way of thinking, way of creating. And I began to read his poems, other writings and they were all absorbed by him. One is this and another, my father was teacher of Bengali and English literature–all these together… created a atmosphere that I thought that literature was the only… should be my only way of life, nothing else. So from the school life I was settled what I am going to do.
SG
One of the things I always thought was childish but I could mention. When I was 12… one day my mother was trying to feed us– we two brothers– and she was grudging that we are having nothing, we are spending our time idly. We are sleepy at that time and she was trying to feed us, and she told us a few stories about the great people, about the general persons of 19th century Bengal; various types of people have created something, made something serious, done something good, and after that she told that you will be nothing. Next morning what we did, I went to the market place and bought a few exercise books to write, and came back, and began writing poetry. That was sort of challenge to my mother that, oh I can do also something– that was childish but that was the beginning of our writing also.
How old were you again? How old, how old were you?
SG
that was my… 12 years. You can understand that those were not writing at all, but some sort of scribbling and… my friend began to think that I am something… I am going to write something– they always encouraged me. And one more thing, my eldest brother, he was 8 years older than me–he is no more…he was…he was doing his graduation at that time, and he wrote a few poems and stories at that time so I was inspired by these also.
Why did you decide at that age to write poetry and not say stories?
SG
stories, yes. It maybe that I thought it was easier, it is easier in the sense that it is small…in fact I tried to write stories also at that time, but… after writing a few pages I couldn’t stand that I am in fact immitating things–what I have read what I am writing those… in my own way. So I thought it’s not my way, I can't do these things. But somehow… rhyming and… it came to me naturally, so I…
could it be something about the literary tradition of Bangla or was it something about… I mean there is poetry as such an important place in Bengal in literature– was it that?
SG
I didn’t think about that thing at all…no, no not at all.
Before continuing on to this…the period after '47 (1947), could you remember what it was like to go through this partition, and what were your impressions were at that time?
SG
In fact that was… I can remember very, very well because… that has been… what should I say… up to this day, those moments have been very vital for me and I can’t for even a moment forget those days and these… leaving one place to come to another place–in fact… out-placed person in the sense of that. Let us move to understand one more thing, the place I was describing where I lived, I told you that on the right hand side and on the left hand side there were two villages. These villages were completely Muslim populated, but the colony where we were in, that was a Railway colony, they were all Railway workers–officers and workers. This colony had 95% Hindus and the surrounding villages had same percent Muslims.
SG
The school we read in had 20% Muslim students; it would have been otherwise but at that time it was…the Muslims usually did not come after educational lines, they did not take education, because of their economic condition–they were mostly farmers and other workers. But… and at this time was Muslim League Government, in West bengal. But even then… upto '44 (1944) or '45 (1945), we didn't notice any major communal disturbances at that area. I had my Muslim friends, they were very dear friends and they also liked me very much. It was evident that… they are Muslim community, we are Hindu community, there is a difference, but there was no such… enemity or anything like that.
SG
But from '44 (1944) '45(1945), it became different, some disturbances had been created, intentionally by the Muslim Government… because there was a cry for… Pakistan– lord killing the Pakistan, a stature Pakistan–that was the slogan, and general Muslim public, they were very inspired by that slogan. They thought that they will have a homeland of their own, they will be rulers at …and they will take revenge on the Hindus because they thought that the Hindu zamindars have been torturing all the time the Muslim peasants and this is a time for revenge–all this came up…and some disturbances were created. In 1946 there was the great Calcutta killings, Muslim League, Mohammad Ali Jinnah called for a Direct Action and on 16th August 1946 there was a...for 3 consecutive years there was no…no ruling party as if… no police, no military nothing.
SG
All the massacres, were massacres –that had effects on the professional towns also. Everyone being suspicious about others, and there was a definite… distance began to grow. I remember one night in 1946, when a rumor… came to our locality, that this very night the headmasters quarter will be attacked and we had to leave our home for a well protected place…in the officer’s quarters. Then at that officers quarters, we had spent one full month– and we left our home at the middle of night like thieves. Next day I was so embarrassed that I still feel embarrassed when I think of… thinking of that moment– one of my… dearest friends is Anwar Hussian, he asked me in the class, people say that you have left your place, why?
SG
I couldn’t answer, nothing happened but the fear was there that something might happen anything at any time. And then the partition was declared, and 1947 it was partition, and we had to come to this side of Bengal. I said we had to come… it’s not that anyone… drove us out, it was nothing like that. In fact… when we were… we had decided that we will be coming to Calcutta, we will leave that place, the local Muslim people were so shocked and in fact they… kept my father for one more year–we'll not leave him, you may go but we are not…we are not leaving him, he will have to stay here, we can’t support– and he had to live for… not full one year but quite few months. But it was difficult for him to stay alone so he had to come ultimately.
SG
So one main question, in fact even today if some Bangladeshi friends ask or even from this side of Bengal, why did you leave that place? There was different reasons infact but for us it was simply… my elder brother was already in service, Railway service, and they had been asked to decide which part of Bengal they want to stay for their service and they will be transferred as you…as they want. And… my elder brother, he just said that… he would go to the other side of Bengal–that was for service. At…in '47 (1947) we did not realize thoroughly… that a big displacement would…in fact most people thought…thought that this partition is so unreal, that it will have to be… considered and for 1 year, at most 2 years it would join again –that was the belief of a large number of people.
SG
But during 1950, a large… killing was going on amongst people. In fact in my very district, Borishal, that had suffered most. That was a ferocious communal riot–it shouldn’t be called a riot because it was one side killing– and that changed everything, at that time lots of people came over to this place and that was a real type of displacement. So it was a horrifying experience but then the idea that I am not…I am not an inhabitant of the place where I lived, where I was born, where I have spent my all… my important childhood days– I am alien to that place, that is very I thought… it was …unbearable infact, unbearable at that time and even in today’s day I don’t feel that I belong, in fact…am also changed, and all together I have lived in… the other side of East Bengal, maybe all together 10 years…68 years I have spent in Calcutta.
SG
But if now I have to say I live in Calcutta, I always miss my… I don’t miss my village so much but I miss my official town, Borishal. And in fact from my age of 7 to 15, these 8 years, these 8 years I spent there –I think not only for me but for perhaps for every human being– this time is most important, one cannot forget good time and that is basis of …all we have to do or think. That was it.
So you came to Calcutta at 15?
SG
at 15.
and you went to your intermediate school ehh your…
SG
college
I see, and what college did you?
SG
Presidency College, Kolkata.
What was…couple of other questions–where did you stay, where did your family stay, where did you stay as the family came at that time?
SG
yes, that is an important question yes. We had no place to stay in there, so what we did…do you take sugar in tea
no
SG
no place to stay… my mother had an aunt, who lived in Calcutta.
SG
She was a widow from her childhood, when she was 9 or 10–she was very young–she lost her husband. From that time she was living alone in the part of North Calcutta and she raised a school, a primary school, on her own and with the school children she spent her days. She had two small rooms to live and we all came to that place.
How many people?
SG
From our family, from my… maternal aunt’s family, my maternal uncles’ family all came together, and at that time, in those 2 small rooms… 27 to 29 people flocked together and lived there for quite some time.
Do you remember the address of this house? Or street?
SG
Nilmoni Mitra Lane…I don’t remember the number, I remember the house–sometimes go to that place even now. It is… do you know the geography of Calcutta, you know Argicar Medical College?
Hmm
SG
This is just behind Argikar medical College, Nilmoni Mitra Lane it was called, that place a small lane.
SG
But I did not spend, in that house, for very long because I had been admitted to college, so my father thought that I need some privacy to stay where I can… study properly. So I had been admitted to a hostel… which was meant for poor and meritorious students, it was particularly for those–and they didn’t take any money for that–so it was a blessing for us that we got a chance to stay in that Hostel. It was a Ram Krishna Mission hostel.
Where was it located?
SG
It was located in Manicktala, a 3 storied building, not very big .
SG
But that home, Ramakrishna mission students, its now a very big one, it is situated in Belgharia a few stations away from Calcutta– it is a very big institution now. That was almost the beginning of it, not exactly beginning as it was already 20 years old at that time–a bit smaller then. I spent 2 years at that place–it was a very religious place, we had to do morning and evening prayers and some sort of rituals always and in a way I have enjoyed that also. Enjoyed because… in the morning always singing together, the rythym, the atmosphere of the prayer room, that quite pleased me. But even then I was not…I was not touched by that religious feeling. It was interesting, when I got admitted in that hostel a friend of my father told him that he has done a very bad thing, it was a bad decision to…My father asked him why? People said they thought it was a good place.
SG
His friend said that it is a good place, good place for study but one important difficulty is this, those who get admitted to that hostel ultimately become sanyasis they try…to make them “sanyasis,” a sort of preaching and my father answered– that was another answer interesting answer–I didn’t understand, even now I can’t understand–he was relived he said oh this is the problem, but this is no problem because… I have made the basis strong. I don’t have to think about that. But I did not understand how he did make the basis strong. He never told me anything about being religious or not being religious, we had no conversation at all. So how was he so confident that I will not be a “sanyasi,’ that I can't understand. One thing maybe that he had taught us Tagore’s (Rabindra Nath Tagore) philosophy, Tagore’s (Rabindra Nath Tagore) literature, and maybe he thought that, one who understands Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore) properly, wont be an ascetic–maybe that.
Did you do 2 years of study at that Ramakrishna Mission and then change?
SG
Ram Krishna Mission was the hostel.
The hostel
SG
Just the hostel, we stayed there and we just had different College’s. I mean I was in Presidency College, my friends were in …some one was in Bongobashi College, someone was in Scottish Church (Scottish Church College)–that was a place to stay, nothing else.
It was just a hostel, how did you travel from the hostel to Presidency (Presidency College) everyday, I am…
SG
When I was in Maniktala hostel, just by foot… it took almost half an hour to walk
And when you were at Presidency (Presidency College)… and you already had come with perhaps… when it sounds like you already found your love for literature, deepening into Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore)…did you find people you could speak with, who were your age or then faculty members, who stoked these interests and became conversation partners for you?
SG
For the first almost almost 2 years… yes it was almost 2 years… I was very shaky. I had come from official colony school, come to a vast metropolitan like Calcutta, and then a college like Presidency College–its very structure is oversome, and the history of Presidency College, and the very first class we sat in… was taken by a Sanskrit scholar, a very famous scholar, Gouri Nath Shastri. He told we had just the students…like this–why have you been admitted to Presidency College? Do you know who had taught in this college? Do you know who have been, who had studied in this College? Do you know their names and all their achievements. So that was really another… the structure itself was oversome and this lecture itself was another… hint that maybe I…for people like me; we were not fit for that place. So I spent a few months, almost 2 years like a foreigner, like an alienated from these things but the hostel….But the hostel people where I had got very good friends and from them I had got some inspiration also.
SG
Amongst them, there were a few very well read on modern Bengali poetry. In modern Bengali poetry… I was not so much accustomed at that time. I knew at that time only Rabindra Nath (Rabindra Nath Tagore), and others, medieval readers or 19th century poets, but my contemporary poetry seemed… that was not very clear to me at that time. But one of my friends, he recited poems after poems that were published very recently, and the poets, and from him I was growing interest on modern poetry.
What was his name?
SG
His name is Khagen Bhowmick. He was in fact a… he was a student of mathematics, a very bright student of mathematics but he had very strong interest in literature. But after that… in fact when I was in BA class, I had very many good friends in my College through class, from all sorts of subjects–in that time there was no demarcation that you were a student of Bengali literature, you are a student of English literature, you are a student of physics, you are a student of Economics. We were all… our closest friends were…one was from English, one was from history, one was from Economics ; So different branches of knowledge… that was always with us in our group– that helped me very much, quite a lot. And about the teachers–we had a few teachers who were always helping and sparing, not only the literary activities but also to some intellectual openings also. We had a teacher in philosophy, Gopi Nath Bhattacharya.
SG
He was a very renowned scholar who had written very few articles, and… maybe a small book. He was reluctant to write anything. But I in my life have not met anyone who is as good a teacher as Gopi Nath Bhattacharya was. He spoke very politely in a low voice, very slowly and… in each class we thought that we had learnt something really. Sometimes he told the students… why are you taking long hand notes? Just listen to me, I am talking to you and try to understand it and then go to home, and find books and you will find everything in the book. He was a teacher of Philosophy. One of my dear friends who afterwards became a good philosopher–he died–Sachin (Sachindra Nath Ganguly), he told me after the class, what can we do? Other teachers rebuke us if we don’t take long hand notes, but those long hand notes are really not very necessary because they can be… you can have them in books. But what Gopi Nath (Gopi Nath Bhattacharya) babu tells us there’s nothing like this in any book.
What was his name again, the name of this friend again?
SG
Gopi Nath Bhattacharya
And the name of the friend who said this?
SG
Sachindra Nath Ganguly.
SG
And we had English teachers like Tark Nath Sen, Subodh Chandra Sengupta. We had read English in the pass course not honors but even in the pass course Tarak Nath Sen used to teach us Shakespeare…and afterwards we came to know that…that Shakespeare he was teaching is of such a high standard that even the English scholars, could not cope with it. We were fortunate about that and got some good teachers, and one more teacher was Sushobhan Sarkar, he was a teacher of history, he was a Marxist and was very good teacher obviously. They helped to… grow and not only me but students at that time.
How about your study of Bengali literature… and also of world literatures, so what was your… how did your vista develop? – and the kinds of literature that you would be , even in Bengali literature, contemporary movements after Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore)– when did you really became interested in those? and in terms of French, German Italian, American when did your interest develop in those fields?
SG
Well when I was doing my honors in Bangla– at that time…at that time there I was already… had some knowledge, I had already some knowledge of Modern Bengali poetry– in fact I may say thorough knowledge at that time–what is going on in the contemporary scene and I have read some of those contemporary poets like Jibanonda Das, Bishnu Dey, Budhadeb Bose, Amaya Chakraborty, Sudhendra Nath Dutta, these people.
Was Mohit Lal Majumdar or...
SG
Mohit Lal Majumdar
Mohit Lal Majumdar was coming...
SG
they were already…they were not being treated as modern at that time.
SG
We thought that Jyotindra Nath Sengupta, Mohit Lal Majumdar, Kazi Nazurul Islam, they paved the way for the moderns to come, but they were not quite modern–I should say modern with the quote mark…but we were very much engrossed with these people at that time. In fact we had some… negligence about those poets, the earlier poets. Apart from a very few poems, I did not like Nazrul (Kazi Nazurul Islam) very much, in fact even now apart from a very few poems and his songs. But while we were reading these modern poets we had to know something about the world literature also. For us to understand fully these poets, we had no other way than to go to the western scene also, particularly TS Eliot–Eliot (TS Eliot) was a great influence at that time. The modern poets named were…not all of them were influenced by Eliot (TS Eliot), but all of them were aware of Eliot (TS Eliot)–one of them is very much influenced by Eliot (TS Eliot) it was Bishnu Dey.
SG
So at the time, our teachers, not all teachers, but a few younger teachers encouraged us to read western literature. But at that particular time, by western literature we understood only English literature and American literature–but much more than this. But while we were going through our post graduate course, that was during '51(1951) to '53 (1953).
And where were you doing that?
SG
Calcutta University. At that time… we were aware of the continental European literature–French, German, Spanish– but only few of them– major ones of Spanish literature, French literature, Russian literature, American literature.
SG
And in 1962 when I was 30 –you will meet Alok Ranjan Das Gupta tomorrow, Alok Ranjan Das Gupta has been a very dear friend of me, closest friend in fact in many days and treated as my own–from '60(1960) onwards we were very close and in '62(1962) we two together edited a big volume of world poetry in translation–a 500 pages book. In that collection there was American, English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese…there were 10 sections I remember.
And what was the name of the book?
SG
“Sapta Sindhu Das Digonto,” seven seas and 10 directions– it’s a phrase from a Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore) song. At that time we were very much… engrossed with these poems and so many different countries, and so many different…but even at that time… that I was thinking for the last few days– in fact a new edition of “Sapto Sindhu” (Sapta Sindhu Das Digonto) will be published very soon.
Who is the publisher?
SG
published, it will be published by Dey’s Publishing, during the book fair.
SG
It had been gone out of print, more than 40 years it has been out of print, and during these 40 years so many people, and so many publishers have urged us to re-publish it, but we didn’t feel like that. But now we have submitted and it is being published. But even at that time we didn’t think about say for Iraqi poems, or Iranian poems, or Afghan poems. So this…this part of worlds was still not being noticed by us. This is being noticed by us from the last 20 years, 20 years. So that was that.
In terms of your… moving to the last sections of our time together to talk about your creative work and your role in Bengali letters…I am just interested in when you were… first of all when did you feel… was there a moment that you remember, when you felt a calling that you had an important work to do in this ground of literature? and that you felt confident that you would be able to make a contribution. I mean when you no longer doubted when you felt a kind of a calling inspiration that you… was there a moment or you did you just find your footing gradually that’s one question and then from there I have a couple of other?
SG
I have two answers to your–this question. One is I am not yet confident about doing anything…about contributing anything worth in Bengal literature. It’s not modesty, it’s my plain belief, it’s my firm belief that… I have nothing to contribute– that is one answer. The other part of the answer is, I didn’t feel that I have anything to, but there was a moment when I thought that I was going to write something… which I must write I can do anything till then–that was at the age of 17. I told you earlier that I'd started writing it when I was 12… but up to the age of 15 those…this…there were almost nothing. But from 15 onwards I wrote something which…could somehow be called the poetry or something like that. But at 17, I wrote a poem, which astonished me. And after writing that I thought that, I will have to write on. I can't be without it.
And what poem was that? The name of it.
SG
The name of it was "Kobor," a Graveyard. In fact, in a sense it was a love poem… but you know… it will be difficult or almost impossible for any reader to think it has a love theme. It was a poem –it had been treated at that time –in fact that was my 3rd year, the 1st year of honors course. And my friends, somehow, had read that poem and they were very excited about that poem and I had to recite it in college–that poem. And that excitement was, that was very… this poem, was a poem of social consciousness. I mean that it was a love poem that was it. In fact from then on… my personal has… I must have said always, but mostly has mingled with outer society , outer world, and love for my country–and all have been together. For that was a moment.
My...my last questions now- when you began your... well so to speak, your beginning career as a writer or teacher but in these early years let's say...the years after you finished your... studies... what was you're sense of what the work that need to be done ? Was it...that Bengali letters needed to be kept new...did they need to be renewed... did they need to... engage in more translation of foreign influences? Did there need to be more work of criticism? Or did there need to be a return to Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore) perhaps given... the histories, lets say the Marxist break, critique of great Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore)-but what did you...at that time let's say the beginning of your professional writing career and also teaching career... what were some of the major projects that seemed most pressing in Bengali letters?
SG
I don't think I have... I had formulated all these things very consciously...but two things bothered me. One was, to be very much dependent on western literature or western ways of looking at things, western critical tools...I thought that there should be a different tool, but what exactly that could be I was not sure about that. And second thing is, in our teaching and critical works, I felt a... detachment from life. The text, the literature was read and taught at classes and in critical works, as if there were an entity in itself. But I had always thought that, if that particular work of literature has nothing to do with my life, my aptitudes, my attitudes-and not only mine, people at large-if I don't treat literature from that point of view, I miss out on that. So I thought that... whenever I teach something- you know that I was a professor for a long time- I have to start from a common man's point of view, a personal point of view, any readers personal inclusions or whatever he gets from personally.
SG
There is a danger in that, to face what should I say, look at it at the personal level-there will be different expressions, there will be different meanings of the same text. I thought at the time and told the students- what I told them innumerable time- that a text has not a single meaning. In fact after quite a few years I have known that these are theories, but I had not come across these theories at that time-in fact those theories were not formed at that time also. But I thought that was a real way to approach literature. Another thing is this, even if you read a piece of poem suppose... were used to... the what is the philosophy of this authors life, authors attitude- what is the need that for that-what you missed on those days. The creativity of that piece that should form that piece- how it is been made.
SG
So in 1966 we had published a paper- in fact the editor of the paper was a...senior student of Jadavpur university- and we few people- Alok Ranjan Das Gupta is one of them- who contributed to the paper regularly.
What was the name of the paper?
SG
The name is "Kobita Porichoy." In that paper 5 or 6 poems are written as individual poems and we were trying to... explain how this can have different poems. It was a study of majors, or rhyming pattern, or the word diction. In a way it is a branch of new criticism. That was a starting point of that "Kobita" ("Kobita Porichoy")- that had an immense impact on the readers.
SG
I for myself didn't like that way very much- after that-at the time I thought that it was a very good way, but after a few years I thought this is being... becoming mechanical so I personally left that. But these were something missing in earlier critical writings and our teaching methods also. In a way you could say that, when I come to my personal problems and relate to my text it becomes a social problem also- so society comes in that. And I am noticing that, in that way at least, teaching Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore) has been very fruitful. The students who usually think that Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore) is very difficult for the- there are some who find it very close to them if you go on this way, that is being fruitful.
May I ask one last question?
SG
Yes, yes
We began earlier with this moment of coming to Calcutta in '47 (1947), and I just wonder how that experience, how the loss of your home in East, how has that manifested itself maybe even... not in terms of your writing but in terms of your friendship, your connections across the border. Have you had colleagues in Bangladesh? Or have you sought to create bonds there? Or how is-or not I mean-how has this affected you in terms of your work?
SG
Well in my work it has affected me immensely. In my poetry...
SG
from 1950 to up to this date, almost 60 years long... the different phases... I have poems which reflect this agony and this sense of loss. It is in my poetry, it is in my prose writings also. I have three small books for children-it is a novel actually, in a trilogy...This novel is complete with the displacement
What are the titles?
SG
One is "Sokal Belar Aalo," "Supuri Boner Sari," "Sohor Pother Dhulo"; One about the Bakshi life in the small official town and one about the village, and one about when I came to Calcutta . I have few small pieces of prose that can be sort of memoirs. Those stories deal with this period and these memories-this is one side. And about the colleagues over there, I cannot say there are many colleagues of mine but...in fact I visited Bakshi after... '47(1947), 28 years- first time when I left in '47 (1947) and after it became Bangladesh in 1975-to that place, and from '75 (1975) to this...up to that date I visited Bangladesh only 4 or 5 times, not much. But I have a very strong relationship with them, with the writers of that part of Bengal, and a few people who are not writers at all. Particularly there is a big family in Dhaka, we can't think that they are a different family. I was introduced to them only in 1975 and for these 35 years they feel so close to us that... we are almost a single family it seems to me.
What are their names or what is the name of the family?
SG
Nahas is the name of the architect and his wife-his wife was known to me before their marriage, Rupa-and father of the house was in army, Pakistan Army and at the time of the partition, and at the time of Bangladesh movement he had to... he had to flee Pakistan, he came to Dhaka in a very adventurous way. He is a big officer, his son is an architect and with this family we are very close . Nahaskohli, the family was Nahaskohli. And whenever we go to that place we get a chance to go to other places- to Borishal ,to Pakshi, to Chattogram, to Momenshil. And at that time I think that it is my place, it's not only their place it's my place that's it . I miss very much, miss very much. You see we have a very good relation.
SG
And the younger generation of poets at that time in Bangladesh, they almost think that I am one of them-I feel proud about that that they think about that, and I have to resist them from doing one dangerous thing . My village mane my para, there my house is intact still now -inhabited by other people obviously- the Muslims have occupied that. This younger generation...was trying to dislodge them because it was my place. I found out a news in the newspaper that they are going to do so there, I had to rusticate them, to prevent them that they don't do that.
Not so much this young generation but the older generation, can you name one or two figure that you either respect highly most highly or that you have had this kind of close...
SG
In Bangladesh?
In Bangladesh relationship with? Once the older
SG
Amongst my group, age group one died even on the... it's almost 2 years perhaps- Samsul Rahman, he was very close to me, he was very close to me. Sayed Samsul Haq, Alma Ahmad- Alma Ahmad is not so close- at the time he was very close but nowadays he has been... a sort of... a very much Islamist fundamentalist that. Anissuzman is not a poet he is a intellectual...and that's many of the people. You had been to Bangladesh?
Just for the first time. I went for the...
SG
Whom did you meet?
I actually met Anissuzaman...shook his hand very briefly... but I saw him, met him in person. Also Siraju Isslam.
SG
Siraju Isslam.
And Safia Islam.
SG
I don't know him.
a next who's...
SG
You don't meet Sanjida Khatun? Robindro Robindro Sangeet, Tagore University, Tagore music-she is a very good singer-she is very close to me. And one more important I think, Abul Momen, Abul Momen, he is in Chattogram.
SG
A very transition minded and doing so many social works, very important works I think.
Well I think Mr. Ghosh Thank you very much for...
SG
Well please, do you think that this conversation will do you any good?
Very much Sir
SG
It will help you?
Very much sir, it was very enlightening... and I think ...yeah it will help help me and I think our project very much ofcourse. Thank you very much Sir I would like to thank you for this
SG
I have my doubts
Well... I will conclude the interview here.