Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay was only 32 years old when he became assistant manager of the reserve forest in Khelat Chandra Ghose’s estate, in Bhagalpur. It was here, in the stillness of the house set deep among the mahua and sal trees, that he wrote Pather Panchali and Aparajito.
He packed a great deal into those three decades and into the rest of his life. As a child, he accompanied his father Mahananda around Muraripur and surrounding villages. Mahananda was a pujari and a kathakar by profession. Bibhuti grew up shaped by stories, attuned to the Bengal countryside, and on intimate terms with poverty. He was an excellent student, but the need to support his family after his father’s death pushed him into various jobs, as Sunilkumar Chattopadhyay records in a short biography.
This year, Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, based on Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito, was newly, miraculously restored. Ray’s original negatives were almost destroyed in a fire in the 1990s; it took the Criterion Collection and L’Immagine Ritrovata, a film lab in Bologna, almost two decades to repair the damage. The restored prints are astounding. In film clips, their clarity and delicacy seems a world away from the grainy, streaked versions we were familiar with.
But the man who wrote the books that inspired Ray to make his first films has almost disappeared from public memory, his life little recalled outside of Bengal.
Bibhuti gave to Apu, especially the adult Apu of Aparajito, many of his own experiences and feelings. In his twenties, Bibhutibhushan’s life was peripatetic; Chattopadhyaya records that his job as propagator of Keshoram Poddar’s Cattle Preservation League took him across Noakhali, Faridkot, as far as Chittagong.
Bengal’s smaller towns could not hold him for long, as he set down in Aparajito: “He was driven to distraction by his longing for his village, its wide open fields, glowing red in the evening sun, small white flowers gleaming on dark water like the diamond stud on a new bride’s nose, clusters of colourful flowers on high grounds. Where were the trees that were so much a part of his life? Where was the greenery? Apu felt suffocated… His only relief came through his imagination.”
But Calcutta sucked him in for a while. He was fascinated by the pace of life, despite his many hardships, and like Apu, he was comforted by the city’s libraries. His friend Nirad Chaudhuri wrote in his Autobiography: “I acquired a great respect for his mind, which had a wide range of interests. He would talk to me of EP Hubble and his theories…” The older writer often asked the younger writer, already respected for his short stories and articles, to recommend books on palaentology and prehistory.
The young Bibhuti lived in Paradise Lodge, a “West Bengal white crow” among the East Bengali students, as Niradbabu recorded in his memoirs, and in Ripon College Hostel in 64 Mirzapore Street. Despite his perennial lack of income, and the early days of joblessness and hunger, the city gave him a community he could not have found at home. There was something about him, a lack of envy and a guilelessness, that lent him immunity against the usual rivalries.
Even Niradbabu suspends his trademark cattiness when he writes about their friendship. He taught Bibhuti the basics of Western classical music so that he would fit better into Calcutta’s English-returned “esoteric and snobbish” cultural circles; then he worried about his friend’s progress. “I felt very anxious about him as a father feels after giving fireworks to his child, for my friend was a real innocent.”
Nirad’s wife lent Bibhuti a respectable dhoti when he joined them to travel to a literary festival in Patna. He had boarded the train in his everyday clothes, which were little more than rags. Back in Calcutta, they explored and weathered the city, surviving an ugly incident when they were caught in a Hindu-Muslim riot. There were less weighty battles with mess cooks who discriminated against the West Bengali but ran away from one such fracas rather than face Niradbabu’s wrath.
Bibhuti had a much more friendly reception from the city’s writers and editors, and was a welcome figure at the Bangashree addas, where the editor Sajanikanta held court along with writers like Tarasankar, Premendra Mitra and Nazrul Islam.
He fell in love here, in Calcutta; he married his Gouri when she was 14 and he was only 22. In 1918, Gouri died of pneumonia. Bibhuti was just 24 and Nirad writes: “He sat in the evenings in his miserable hovel in the light of the flickering oil lamp and thought of his loss until the whistle of the train from Calcutta reminded him that it was time to go to bed.”
Bibhuti stayed on for a while, and though he seldom aired his grief, Nirad writes that he carried a packet of papers (letters from his young wife) in his breast pocket and kept the embroidered hand-made fan she had made by his pillow. In time, his memories drove him from the city, but on Ghosh’s estate, he found a measure of peace again. He wrote the two most famous of his 20-odd novels in this forest house, and in Khelat Chandra’s home on the banks of the river.
Bibhuti would often go back to Calcutta, though he finally made his home in Ghatshila. He married again, happily; a detail that Ray made famous in the films was in fact taken from his marriage to Rama Chattopadhyay, two decades after Gouri’s death. She would tie the end of her sari to the end of his dhoti to prevent his getting out of bed to early in the morning. “Now, this is a very effective means of keeping a Bengali when you do not want to part with him,” Niradbabu noted.
As his books (Ashani Sanket, Chander Pahar) gained in popularity, Bibhuti took up many of his old interests. He was President of the Coochbihar Banga Sahitya Sammelan in 1943, and headed the fiction section of the Banga Sahitya Sammelan in 1945, for instance. Five years later, he was dead of a heart attack – he was only 56.
“He could sense the existence of another world,” Bibhuti wrote in Aparajito. “The visible sky, the song of a bird, the mere act of living, all bore only a hint of it… This secret world was hidden somewhere under the mundane routine of everyday life.” Bibhuti’s conviction that there was more to this universe than humans could grasp ran deep, and perhaps only Ray could have translated his words onto film with such stunning visual force.
(NB: Aparajito quotes from Gopa Majumdar’s English translation; other quotes from Nirad C Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, part 2.)
(Published in the Business Standard, Tuesday, June 9, 2015)