For the Love of Words
(The author is the granddaughter of the late Bengali author, Saradindu Bandopadhyay)
My earliest memories of my paternal grandfather, the late Bengali writer Saradindu Bandopadhyay, is that of a tall dhoti-kurta clad figure walking slowly around the house with a faraway expression on his face before heading for his desk and settling down to his writing schedule. His faraway expression was deceptive, I later realised, because he took note of every family member and their activities before retiring to his study to work on his novels. I was around six years old at that time, totally oblivious to the celebrity status of my grandfather and to the respect he commanded in the literary and cinematic worlds. My greedy eyes were perennially fixed on the pile of white sheets of writing paper, the pencil-stand stacked with sharpened yellow pencils and the glass jar filled with colourful sweets that always stood on my grandfather’s study table. Depending on who had behaved well during the day, sweets were distributed to the kids (seven of us in the big joint family) every evening by my grandfather and since I was an art enthusiast, I got a few sheets of white paper and a pencil from my grandfather as well.
Although he worked steadily on his novels all through the day, I remember Dadu pushing aside his papers often and taking time out to write letters to people. Those were the days of sky-blue inland letters and biscuit-yellow postcards that flew back and forth between relatives and friends with heartwarming regularity.
My grandfather passed away when I was barely eight and my greatest regret was that although I would come to be well versed with his literary works in the following years, I never got a chance to know the person behind the author, except as a doting grandparent.
All this was fractionally rectified over the years as family members recalled snippets from Dadu’s extraordinarily descriptive letters.
‘He never wrote letters to his sons’ my mother informed me one day, much to my astonishment ‘he only wrote to his daughters-in-law. And he insisted that we respond with long newsy letters from our side!’ My mother, known for her pearly handwriting, was so prolific a writer that her writing erupted to the sides of the inland letter, often straying into the gum areas on the edges of inland letters. The recipient of one of my mother’s letters could be seen turning the letter an entire 360 degrees with a mystified expression. It went without saying that she was my grandfather’s favourite correspondent.
“But what did you write to him about?” was my perpetual query, to which my mother gave very vague answers. ‘Oh, the menu, the marketing, servant problems, the children’s performance/ non-performance at school, neighbourhood gossip, the smell and taste of the first rains, checking the accuracy of some Rabindra sangeet lyrics, maybe a bit of feminine cathartic talk….’ ‘You wrote of all these to Dadu?’ I asked in astonishment. ‘Why not? He was more of a friend than my sasurmosai’ countered my mother, defensively.
Much later, when I turned author and had to write in the voice of a male protagonist, I found myself turning to my male relatives to capture nuances and traits that made up the male psyche and injecting them into my fictional characters to lend them authenticity. Consequently, bits and pieces of my brothers, father, uncles and other male friends found their way into my fictional characters. Was my grandfather then doing the same exercise with the information and insights he gleaned from the letters his daughters-in-law wrote to him?
Were his fictitious women- Satyabati, Bidyunmala, Somdatta, Rajkumari Tandra- spun with the characteristics of my grandmother, mother and aunts? An interesting literary hypothesis that I have never got down to proving.
In the Hindi movie Khoobsoorat, I remember my script-writer Phul Jetha- the author’s second son- sculpting the character of actor Ashok Kumar along the lines of my Boro Jetha who would always be found pottering with his rose plants. Is all creativity then composed of bits of memories and slices of real life?
My eldest aunt- my Boro Jethima had an amusing anecdote to tell us. Married at the tender age of fourteen she was the same age as my father and the two of them were great friends. My father taught her to climb trees and ride a bicycle, and on school holidays the two of them could be seen playing like siblings. One day, as my grandfather sat writing quietly in a corner of the garden, my father and my Boro Jethima playing nearby, both aged fifteen, had a major quarrel which ended with my Boro Jethima calling my father a ‘ram chagoler chaana’ in a derogatory tone. My grandfather continuing to write his novel with a preoccupied air, appeared not to have noticed the quarrel or the language used by the teenagers. But many weeks later, informed my Jethima, when my grandfather was visiting Calcutta to attend to some literary events, he wrote a lengthy letter to his eldest daughter-in-law describing his activities in the city of Calcutta. The letter ended, informed my Boro Jethima, blushing with embarrassment even years later, with the words ‘Iti,
Such was the persona of the author that his dry wit and keen observation was not just restricted to his literary works but they spilled into real life. It is difficult to say whether his writing fuelled his love for life or whether his habit of living every moment of his life to the hilt fuelled his writing but the fact is that both his real and imaginary lives complemented each other perfectly.
As the author’s works continue to gain popularity with the passing of time and his works find their way onto the celluloid medium and get translated into other languages, layers of his persona reveal themselves unexpectedly in the snippets of remembered conversation and old letters. Most of the letters and unfinished manuscripts penned by him are now falling to pieces with age, even though his thoughts, words and stories remain evergreen. As the personality of the author continues to gain shape and substance based on sporadic data, the demystification of Saradindu Bandopadhyay is as much an intriguing process as one of his complex Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries.