The Telegraph
Friday , November 16 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sunlight on the garden: A story of childhood & youth
By André Béteille,
Viking, Rs 499

André Béteille startled even his admirers when some years ago in Civil Lines he published “My Two Grandmothers”. The professor of sociology looked back on his childhood and his two grandmothers — both widows in straitened circumstances in Chandannagar (some 20 miles up river from Calcutta and a French colony) but one a French lady and another a Bengali Brahmin. The sensitivity, the honesty and the wry humour of that essay made some of Béteille’s friends persuade him to pen his memoirs.

The result is this delightful book, one of the finest memoirs written by an Indian. Béteille’s memories straddle Chandannagar, where he spent a large part of his childhood, and Calcutta, where he grew up from a schoolboy to a young researcher in social anthropology. It ends with Béteille’s departure from Calcutta — for good, as it transpired — with a job in the Delhi School of Economics in the late 1950s.

In this book, for obvious reasons, the autobiographer cannot forsake the anthropologist. Very early in the book, there is an account of a dinner given in the Béteille household for a French official. The latter wanted to eat the way Indians do. Young André watched the proceedings from behind a curtain and noticed how the rice slipped through the official’s fingers when he tried to eat. Recollecting this, the memoirist writes, “The discovery that eating with one’s fingers was also something to be learnt was one step towards becoming an anthropologist.” Thus, becoming an anthropologist, something that lies in the future, is brought to bear on a childhood memory.

There is a vivid account here of the Great Calcutta Killing on August 16, 1946. The author was then nearly twelve. There is also a sketch of the urban landscape of parts of Calcutta in the 1940s — the area stretching northwards down Circular Road from Entally to Maniktala. The author’s familiarity with Calcutta moved beyond this area when he joined St Xavier’s College on Park Street and later Ballygunge Science College.

The recollections of the days in college and the university are redolent with meetings with friends and teachers. Many well known figures of Calcutta’s intellectual world inhabit these pages.

The book is very aptly named from the lines of a poem by Louis MacNeice. The pages are bright and cheerful. Sunlight, even in a garden, inevitably brings shadows but nothing dark falls on this book. No rancour or bitterness tarnishes its pages. This is remarkable since as is evident André Béteille did not have a privileged upbringing. His unusual background could not have made it easy for him to be part of Calcutta’s genteel society. Is the light, rather than the dark, what André Béteille wants to remember? Or was life really full of sunlight?