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‘Comrade’ Samantak Das brought a sparkle into our lives — and then was gone

A friend writes why the pro VC of Jadavpur University — who passed away today — was one of a kind

Mudar Patherya | Published 20.07.22, 07:42 PM
Samantak Das

Samantak Das

‘Comrade!’ 

That was my hello equivalent for Samantak Das, pro VC of Jadavpur University, each time he called (or I did).

This word, spoken abruptly into the mouthpiece, gradually evolved from a salutation into a recognition of shared values. 

It wasn’t just a word; it was more. I may be eking out more than a living seeking value arbitrage on the stock markets and he teaching Comparative Literature in the classroom, but the word was an acknowledgement that we were at the end of the day ‘ikhwan us safaa’ (brethren of purity).   

The word dissolved intellectual levels, economic backgrounds, school affiliations and beverage preferences. It sent out a message that diverse as we may be, we championed something fundamental: that all men (and women) were equal, there was no place for ‘My religion is more right than yours’, and there was no difference that could not be bridged over a beef steak.  

Samantak was your ideal 9.35 conversation material after dinner had been done with and the night was an adolescent. 

He could stand his ideological terra firma to the last comma but surrender in the face of a chocolate brownie. 

He could listen patiently (as he often did when our Sarobar Book Club recitations went into the fifth page) and then slip in a word of intervention that sent out a signal that perhaps it was time to move to the next person.   

‘He could stand his ideological terra firma to the last comma but surrender in the face of a chocolate brownie’

‘He could stand his ideological terra firma to the last comma but surrender in the face of a chocolate brownie’

He could provoke you into a paradigm you held close (‘Admissions should not be done on merit’ being one) and unpeel argumentative layers that graduated the jousting towards Santhal exploitation, scholarship support and academic turnarounds. 

He could be the turn-to person when you needed a reference to Marichjhapi and 1979, or if you needed to get a flavour of the role of opium in colonial trade. Samantak would contemplate an ant on the floor, then mention the book, author and index search word from where this information could be poached. 

He could fuss over the pronunciation of Champs Elysees until you got it right but never bothered to wear an ironed kurta to an evening dinner.

He could self-deprecate in every conversation but would sheepishly send you his op-ed page piece that appeared in The Telegraph

I would have had no reason to share the oxygen with his intellectual kind but for Cyclone Aila in 2009. Samantak had narrowed his assistance down to a certain Sukumar Paira, headmaster of a waterlogged Sunderbans school. My wife and I had done the same. Samantak reached out; would we carry some cash and hand it over to the principal.  

The Sarobar Book Club is now in its sixth year. For just one reason. Comrade.

I kind of remembered. A few years later, when I got a hare-brained idea to start a Book Club in Rabindra Sarobar, I re-connected. He was surprised at this request; he recoiled at the challenge of drawing 20 bookward strangers out of their pillows on a Saturday morning to discuss Kafka and Camus. Not the kind of idea that would have gone into a second Saturday, but the Book Club is now in its sixth year, having survived a few hundred sessions with a steady community of around 30.  

For just one reason. Comrade.  

After that initial shock of discovering that people were indeed keen on returning the following Saturday, Comrade got ‘professional’. He would swoosh into the Sarobar gate at 7.27 on his Lambretta, hidden under his 1985 helmet, with the durries placed near the brakes. He institutionalised the practice of announcing a theme for each session (including footfall-driving subjects like ‘Sex’, ‘Kolkata’, ‘Red’ and ’Partition’), conducted each session like a majlish (sequenced reading with no interruptions), two-minute debates or dissensions before the next reader took over, introduced sandwiches and cakes into each session (before the Sarobar moral police frowned), and concluded each session at sharp 9.30 – not as much to leave for home but to shift the adda to the cha dukaan outside the Sarobar with renewed vigour, periodically punctuated by ‘Aar ekta biskoot!’ 

If you invited him for dinner, he said ‘Yes’ before you finished your sentence. If he turned up, he got four or five books as his gift share with his name inscribed on the fly leaf (shucks, could not be traded); he was not the kind who looked at the watch and said ‘Oh, it is 9.43 and I’ve got an early morning lecture’ and he was definitely not the kind who ever said ‘Khoob kheyechhi’. If he saw some unusual feature in a person, he would coin a nickname.  

Comrade was one of a kind. He carried his knowledge lightly, made friends with those 30 years younger, scattered alliterations wherever he went, corrected gently, spoke truth to power, brought a sparkle into our lives — and then was gone. 

Last updated on 21.07.22, 05:57 AM
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