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First day at Coffee House and missed last day at doorstep

On the occasions when they set the pen aside to don the greasepaint, they were hailed as the Uttam- Suchitra of Bengali literature. Nabaneeta Dev Sen, the Suchitra of the duo, remembers her Uttam — friend, philosopher and guide Sunil Gangopadhyay.

Yes, Sunil and I have acted together. Those were live performances for our adda platform Budhsandhya, which he had founded. Sunil loved to act and took himself very seriously as an actor. I never had such pretensions though. Our productions were varied — Muktodhara, his own Praner Prohori, my play Avijnan Dushmantam. He would play the sage Kanva and I Gautami, his sister — the guardians of Sakuntala. But the roles had comic twists. I had spectacles on and knitted wool. He took off his wig at one point to scratch his head and put it on again!

Just weeks back, we did bit roles in D.L. Roy’s Shahjahan at Rabindra Sadan. Sunil pencilled us in as a farmer couple who would be seen talking of the war. Sunil wanted to play a Muslim farmer but the director would not allow me to wear a burqa as my face had to be visible. Finally, it was decided that we would be a Hindu couple. So I was duly dressed in a sari, but out walked Sunil from his dressing room in a lungi and skullcap! So as a last-minute measure, my bindi was taken off to pass me off as a Muslim.

Sunil also had a lovely singing voice. After downing a peg or two during an adda, he would invariably start singing Rabindrasangeet. He had the entire Gitabitan memorised. He had written a couple of songs too. They were our favourites during long drives.

Sunil and I go back a long way — to 1956. I was then a teenaged student at Jadavpur University. We met on my first visit to Coffee House. My mother (Radharani Devi, the poet) had made me promise never to enter Coffee House as a condition to let me study at Presidency College. But once I was out of Presidency and in JU, the promise no longer bound me. I was accompanied by my friends Pranabendu Dasgupta and Dipak Majumdar. Both were poets of Krittibas (the iconic little magazine that Gangopadhyay steered). Two men joined our table — Sunil and Shakti (Chattopadhyay). Sunil was already a legend among us students. Shakti was slowly coming into his own. That was a memorable day.

Then I left to study abroad and got married to Amartya (Sen). I remember a party back in Calcutta when I was heavily pregnant with my elder daughter (Antara). Sunil, I remember, had joked about my bravado.

Four years later — Amartya was then teaching at Delhi School of Economics — Sunil got married to Swati. I invited them to come watch a moonlit Taj Mahal. But he wrote back that they were planning to visit a drought-torn neighbouring state. Traditionally, a newly-wed couple does not witness infertility. But Puplu (Souvik) was born within a year. So the honeymoon was all right.

My second book of poems, Swagata Debdut, was brought out by Krittibas in 1972. I was still abroad. Sunil dedicated his experimental novella Mayakanoner Phul to me. The entire piece did not contain a single verb!

When I was back in Calcutta and joined Jadavpur University, the three of us became more intimate. Swati and Sunil stood by me as a rock when my marriage fell apart. The six of us, including our three children, would drive to Victoria Memorial for morning walks. That was just a pretext for the excellent kochuri sold on the premises. But after a while, we got bored and gave up. Santosh Kumar Ghosh, the editor of Anandabazar Patrika, sometimes drove us on Sundays to Kolaghat where we would sample the fresh catch of fish at the streetside eateries.

Sunil loved fish, especially the dried ones with a lot of chilli, but I can’t say he was a foodie. Some items were a must on his lunch plate though — green mango or tamarind chutney and home-made curd, apart from fish. Otherwise, he would be happy with his liquor and cigarettes.

Once he gave up smoking with a public pledge on stage but soon started smoking bidi and hookah. “I quit cigarettes, not smoking,” he argued. Some months later, we travelled to Munich for the book festival and I was calling him downstairs for dinner. As the phone kept ringing, I went up and knocked. At last the door parted and there was so much smoke inside that I panicked thinking the room was on fire. Sunil had decided to break his pledge and had smoked an entire packet.

I had become a regular to the Sunday morning adda at their Gariahat home. Since I was the only teetotaller, I would carry my own Thums Up. That adda was a haunt of literary personalities, both young and old, like Samaresh Bose, Santosh Kumar Ghosh and Sagarmoy Ghosh.

Sunil was so supportive of young poets. He not only reared a whole generation of poets but he left us with a language that one could emulate and still find one’s voice in. Tagore gave my generation the language of romance, Sunil gave the next generation theirs. He was fiercely devoted to the Bengali language for the better part of his life, but once he became president of Sahitya Akademi his focus widened to include other regional languages. He commissioned so many translation projects.

Sunil refused to grow old. He spurned the use of walking stick before and after his knee operation.

Perhaps that is why I was scared when during the play, he asked me: “Haat ta ektu dhore rekho (Keep holding my hand)” and we walked across the stage holding hands all through. I had never seen him so physically unsure of himself. Neither was he laughing and joking as much as was his wont. He was just not himself. That was October 6. All of us had dinner after the play.

Two days later, we were to attend a meeting together. He came to pick me up but I was not well enough to go. We spoke later on the phone but it rankles that I did not meet him the last time he was at my doorstep.

As told to Sudeshna Banerjee