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I lay all evening...

Author Amit Chaudhuri recalls an unforgettable evening he spent with Sunil Gangopadhyay and the half-thought that culminated in the English translation of Neera, hariye jeo na (Neera, don’t get lost)

Sunil Gangopadhyay and I were invited to read on the open rooftop of a house in south Calcutta, as part of the first anniversary celebrations of a fledgling literary society. Both of us were uncomfortable, partly because of the humidity, and partly because many of us abhor the banality of readings even while we’re appropriated as seemingly willing performers. Then he began to read Neera, hariye jeo na (Neera, don’t get lost), and I found myself drawn into this long poem as if I were watching an extraordinary film whose language I didn’t understand. Of course I understand Bengali; but as I listened to the sequence of images (though ‘listening’ to images may make me sound like Bottom), to its poetic jumble of moments at once erotic and public, covering the political upheavals of the Sixties and Seventies as well as the sensations of nightfall, day, and lovemaking, I was — as UR Ananthamurthy was when he watched The Seventh Seal in England without subtitles — in thrall to a world that could be sensed and experienced, but not halfway grasped. At irregular intervals, Gangopadhyay had been writing about a woman called Neera whom his narrator knew only briefly, if at all — met fleetingly at bus stops, glimpsed during festive days, but both anticipated and recalled endlessly, like the Yaksha’s beloved in Alaka. But not Alaka was her perpetual setting, but noisy, difficult Calcutta. That evening I was reminded again, as I intermittently am, of the extraordinariness of contemporary Bengali literature; moreover, a half-thought occurred to me — that, at some point in the future, I’d translate the poem.

Repose and a quality of taciturn stillness is what I associate with Sunilda, as well as lightning-flashes of genuine affection. Openness and humility too; I recall how he accepted, without remonstrance, my criticism of the name-change from Calcutta to Kolkata when he sat next to me on another public platform. On yet another occasion, invited with him and a few others to be present at the launch of the inaugural issue of a literary magazine put together by the inmates of Alipore jail, I noticed how European he was, despite, or because of, his avowed Bengaliness, instructing his captive (in more senses than one) audience about Jean Genet and his relationship with Sartre. Sunil Ganguly was a beacon from a troubled but luminous age — a considerable prose writer, and, at his best, an extraordinary and incomparable poet.