Archive for October 23rd, 2012

Sunil Gangopadhyay and his legacy

October 23, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (10)



Sunil Gangopadhyay was a great writer and a warm, kind and generous man. I can scarcely believe that he is gone.

Our interests overlapped in odd and sometimes surprising ways. Sunil-da loved Indian classical music for instance, and it was through a novella of his, about the life of the great singer Amir Khan, that I was first introduced to his work. He was also among the first to write about the refugee settlement of Morichjhapi, in the Sundarbans (which figures prominently in my novel The Hungry Tide). I particularly loved his historical fiction, especially the novel Shei Shomay (which was published in English as Those Days): 19th century Calcutta was one of our shared passions.

Sunil-da was supportive of my work long before we became friends. He frequently reviewed my books in Desh, Bengal’s most important literary magazine. He would often say to me ‘you write Bengali novels in English’ – I treasured those words.

Although Sunil-da felt strongly about the Bengali language, when it came to books what he cared about most was the quality of the writing, not the choice of language. No writer had a greater influence on him perhaps than Allen Ginsburg (he spoke of this at length with my wife for her book A Blue Hand).

One of Sunil-da’s greatest qualities, as a writer and a human being, was that he accepted, acknowledged and encouraged the interplay of influences between languages. For him the literary world wasn’t a neat array of boxes with labels like ‘Indian Writing in English’, ‘Regional Writing’, ‘European literature’ etc. He understood that the literary life is lived in a kind of whirlpool, formed by the currents of many rivers.

Sunil-da gave Kolkata many things, but perhaps the most valuable among them was that he nurtured a fluidly cosmopolitan literary culture, where no one needed to feel excluded. This always gave me a great sense of privilege when I was in Delhi, London, New York or in other parts of the world where there are tall barriers between writers who write in different languages. I felt fortunate to be a part of a literary culture in which languages embrace and enrich each other – this was a gift that Sunil-da gave to me and many others.

In 2004 Sunil-da released my novel The Hungry Tide in Kolkata. My publisher, the late Ravi Dayal, who was another dear friend, came to Kolkata for the occasion:




here Sunil-da is in conversation with my wife, Deborah Baker, and Ravi.









Here Sunil-da’s wife, Swati Gangopadhyay is seated beside him.







Despite his great accomplishments and his vast erudition, there was something almost child-like about Sunil-da. He was the very embodiment of that elusive quality that is spoken of in Bengali as saralata – the literal meaning of which is ‘simplicity’, but which refers rather to a certain sweetness of spirit and an absence of malice. One of the ways in which this manifested itself in Sunil-da was that he would often sing at social occasions (it’s interesting that the other great Bengali writer of his generation, Mahasweta Devi, also often sings spontaneously).

This is how I would like to remember Sunil-da – in song.






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