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The Raconteur Of Life’s Little Tales

Calcutta fondly saw him as an eccentric character and ‘a bit of a vagabond’. Bibliophile, collector and man of letters, Radha Prasad Gupta was a polymath and more.

The Raconteur Of Life’s Little Tales
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Many visitors to Calcutta who had more than a passing interest in the history and society of that great city would, if they were lucky enough, eventually land on the doorstep of R.P. Gupta’s flat in the southern suburb of Ballygunge. Gupta was many things: a bibliophile, a writer in both English and Bengali, a gastronome, a cineaste, a collector of paintings. Supremely, and in the traditions of his city, he was also a talker, with an exquisite, magpie gift for anecdotes and recherche facts and, eagle-like, for triumphant assertion. Nobody who spent an hour or so with him could not be better informed about Calcutta as a result, though his interests stretched far beyond the boundaries of Bengal and he could shame Europeans with his knowledge of neglected corners of their own cultures. The scholars, writers, photographers and film-makers who came to see him would come away almost tipsy with information, jokes and a generous glass or two of rum. Even in Calcutta, he was seen as a ‘character’ and slightly eccentric. At quite late stages of the day he would still be dressed in a vest and pyjamas, looking, as he would put it, "like nobody’s bloody business". But his mind was as sharp as a tack.

Radha Prasad Gupta was born of a Bengali family in 1921 in Cuttack, Orissa, where his grandfather B.D. Gupta had become the first Indian principal of the town’s chief educational institution, Ravenshaw College, after a distinguished career as the professor of mathematics at Presidency College, Calcutta. He and his five siblings grew up in some style in a large bungalow with large gardens, but his father died young and his mother, who came of a wealthy family, was not skilled in the management of money. When R.P. reached Calcutta around the outbreak of the Second World War, to study economics at the university there, he was well-born but far from rich, and therefore ideally suited to join one of the world’s most remarkable metropolitan populations: the Calcutta middle-class-the earliest middle-class in an otherwise feudal Asia-whose cultural, political and religious enthusiasms filled almost every household with music-making, argument, poetry and (later) Marxism, and which grew out of Bengal’s long encounter with British imperialism and western thought. If there is any truth in the saying that modern India was most moulded by the two individuals who had never been there, Queen Victoria and Karl Marx, then the people of Calcutta exemplified that idea at its fullest.

For several years after university, Gupta did nothing very much by way of a living. He was, in the words of a friend, "a bit of a vagabond", though in a Bohemian and completely uncriminal sense: poetry (he translated T.S. Eliot as well as several Bengali poets into Oriya), endless coffee, late-night disputation, some private tutoring. Then he took a job as a copywriter with J. Walter Thompson, and soon after appeared playing the Chaplinesque role of a lightweight boxer in a cinema commercial for an Indian cigarette brand. In the ring he was faced with an opponent three times his size. He took a puff of the advertised cigarette, and thus fortified stepped forward to knock the giant flat out.

The commercial had been scripted by an executive at a rival agency, Satyajit Ray. The two men became, and remained until Ray’s death in 1992, close friends. During the financially troubled shooting of Pather Panchali (1955), Ray’s first and perhaps finest film, it was Gupta who, on learning that John Huston was in town, took the rushes to his hotel and badgered the American director into watching them, which led to Huston’s vocal encouragement of Ray and news of his film in Hollywood.

From 1956, he worked as a public relations executive for the Tata Iron and Steel Company and was head of its PR department when he retired in 1980. But this work he saw mainly as a means to an end; he was not a man to confuse "the meaning of life" with "salaried employment". Most of his spare time was spent among the second-hand bookstores in the narrow lanes of north Calcutta, truffling for 18th and 19th century books, prints and ephemera. His flat became a trove of such things. He built up a prized collection of Kalighat pats, the pictures painted as souvenirs for pilgrims to Calcutta’s Kali temple, often comic, of which the Victoria and Albert museum has other examples.

He turned to writing after retirement, publishing regularly in Bengal’s leading literary magazine, Desh, and in its foremost Bengali-language newspaper, Ananda Bazar Patrika. English-language newspapers throughout eastern and northern India also used his pieces, which were mainly informative, anecdotal and historical. He was not, unusually in India, addicted to sweeping political opinion about the contemporary state of the country. Often he wrote with erudite mischief and wit. Two of his books in Bengali, Kolkatar Firiwalar Dak Aar Rastar Awaj ("Street Cries of Calcutta", 1984) and Mach Aar Bangali ("Fish and the Bengali", 1989), delighted his large Bengali audience.

His real concern, I think, was language, and particularly the interplay between Bengali and English. He loved puns-a typical Calcutta affliction-and collected them. His friend Ray was the subject of one, the nickname "Orient Longman", because he was tall and famous in the West; this was changed, when Ray’s heart operation coincided with the opening of a new road around the city, to "Eastern Bypass".

Of course, it was the way he told them. There was no stopping him; one did not want him to stop. Over a rum-and-water and a Gold Flake filter one monsoon day in 1983, he told me that drinking without smoking was "like Hengist without Horsa" or (a pause, a laugh, spraying chana choor across the table) "juvenile without delinquency". That same day, I see from my notes, he ranged over the history of the Bengali sweet rasagolla, Aubrey’s Brief Lives, Lord Curzon, Bernard Berenson, Rabindranath Tagore, Chaplin, Clara Bow, the old Empire Cinema, Calcutta’s evening breeze ("like a langra mango at peak flavour"), the Hindu lack of a sense of tragedy, and Aldus Manutius. Once, standing in the next stall of a hotel urinal, he recited to me a large portion of the Beaufort Scale.

Even by the standards of a generous city, his generosity was notable. When the actress Julie Christie visited Calcutta nine years ago, she called him at my suggestion. Gupta’s taste in cinema ran towards the French rather than modern Anglo-American: Jean Renoir (whom he and Ray had met while he was filming The River in Bengal), Louis Malle, etc. He had no idea who Christie was, but still invited her to his 70th birthday party that same evening. Everybody at the party was excited by her presence apart from the host. He asked her what she did. Acting in films was the answer. He introduced her thereafter to newcomers as Julie Andrews, of whom he had somehow heard. It became another story about "Satul Babu", his pet name among his Bengali friends (and sometimes a story with an imaginary flourish: "And now will you sing for us, ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ is a particular favourite hereabouts").

R.P. Gupta, who died in Calcutta on March 9, 2000, was awarded the West Bengal government’s Vidyasagar prize for a lifetime’s contribution to Bengali letters.

( Ian Jack is the editor of Granta magazine)

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