|Sankar at the 50-year celebration of Chowringhee at Starmark, South City, last year
He debuted at No. 1 in 1950 With Koto Ajanare and 63 years later, he’s still a bestselling writer. He’s in fact selling in more languages than ever before! A few days shy of his 80th birthday [December 7], Sankar spoke to Metro about a literary career spanning nearly a hundred books, the “capital shift” and the price one pays for living long.
“You can call it fate. But yes, it is strange that when my first book came out in 1950, I was No. 1 and even now two of my books are No. 1 on College Street — Achena-Ajana Vivekananda and Chowringhee. The book on Vivekananda has sold over 1.5 lakh copies. I think it will come out in all major Indian languages. It’s already come out in Odiya, Assamese, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Malayalam, English. That this book will become this popular I had not expected. Kintu kopale chhilo…,” he smiled.
Speaking of translations, the mind boggles at the number of languages Chowringhee has been translated into. Sankar himself has lost count — English, Italian, French, Czech, Spanish, Russian… and very soon, Chinese.
And the book seems to be doing a Shah Rukh Khan too — acting as Bengal’s brand ambassador. “I have heard people say about Chowringhee, ‘This book is sufficient reason to visit Calcutta.’ I still get surprised, and wonder why all this was in my fate.”
But things were not so adulatory to start with. Because he was poor and from Howrah, he had to hear barbs like, “He’s writing about a five-star hotel, does he even know the difference between an omelette and a mamlet?”
So does he feel like he has silenced his critics? “No, I’m past that age. I don’t feel like taking credit for myself anymore. I have got far more than what I wanted. I have got far more than what I deserved. But from the response to Chowringhee, I have understood one thing. People’s minds are the same across the world.”
Speaking about his childhood, he said, “I feel fascinated to think of the time when I was born. Rabindranath Tagore was writing, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay was writing, Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay was in full form. So we really didn’t have anything to complain!”
Sankar never met Rabindranath or even saw him but the day he died, many students from his school in Howrah wanted to see him and set off on foot towards Calcutta. “But I didn’t know the roads, I lost my way after a while and couldn’t reach the procession. That’s a regret I still have.”
Sankar is not Howrah-born but he calls himself “Howrah-bred” and had hoped to be “Howrah-dead”. But after his wife passed away, he has started living on Bondel Road, though he still has a house in Howrah.
“Emotionally I am still a Howrah resident. I wrote three novels on Calcutta sitting in Howrah. They are a Howrah view of Calcutta. Possibly the slight distance helped me. It’s a west bank view of the east bank,” he smiled.
Well, now the administration has shifted to Howrah, we mention. “Not administration, the capital has shifted,” he interjected with a twinkle in the eye. “Don’t make a mistake,” he said, the twinkle giving way to a guffaw. “Howrah is now the capital of Bengal but the people of Calcutta don’t want to acknowledge it! You say it grudgingly,” he grinned.
“As I had written in Anandabazar Patrika, Howrah was the natural choice for the capital of British India. It was a much more sensible location. And the city should have expanded the other way — Uluberia, Singur…. But that didn’t happen, by mistake. And then Howrah Bridge compounded the mistake.”
So, observing Calcutta from the west bank, how has he seen the city change over the decades?
“I don’t want to comment much but I can say this — Bengalis are suspicious of ‘change’, historically. And the reason is that almost every change in the past 100 years has been a change for the worse. “So, there has developed a mistrust towards change in our blood.”
He had started work on a book that he hasn’t “completely lost hope” about, which is on how Bengalis have been scared of change, be it tapped water, photography, refined sugar, sandesh, vaccines, railways or electricity!
Another book he wishes to write is about the many funny happenings and anecdotes at Writers’ Buildings, about all those writers of the East India Company who used to live and work in that building, snacking on “Bengal biscuits”. No, that’s not some English-era confection, it’s our humble ol’ muri!
The muri, we know, is Sankar’s favourite food. But when asked what he likes to have, pat came the reply laced with trademark Sankar wit: “I am habituated to swallowing criticism and rebuke.”
Same for his reading list: “Everything, rajbhog theke chanachur.”
Okay, what about birthday plans? “I don’t have any birthday plans. No celebrations, business as usual. But I think my two daughters [who live in the US and the UK] will land up, even though I had asked them not to. But they feel 80 won’t come twice!”
The chat turns towards his life’s greatest inspiration — Swami Vivekananda. “Vivekananda gives me mental strength, gives me confidence. Everyone needs at least one positive influence in life who one can cling to and lead life. I found that in him. But I never ever imagined that I would one day be regarded as a Vivekananda specialist! If my headmaster had heard this, he’d have died laughing.”
His closing thoughts? “I have reached the age of 80 by God’s blessings, it’s a bit unbelievable. I bucked the family trend. My father passed away young, as did his father. I should have toed the line. But I lived. And I am paying the price for that too. To be lonely at the age of 80, no one to talk to at home. Thank god I have my books, that’s how I am alive. Theek achhe. No grudges.”