The last time I went to Sunilda’s house was on Sunday October 21 to give him a copy of the Outlook ( Bengali) Puja special. He had written a poem for us in it. A one page ode to love reflected through a prism of a mind fragmented by contradictions and frayed by the wear and tear of time. It reaffirmed my belief that Sunilda is—rather was— a hopeless romantic. The poem played an integral part in making our first Bengali issue a collector’s copy.
One of my colleagues, who was close to Sunilda, had collected the poem from him and asked me to preserve the copy because though the page was a typed one, it had one line with a correction in Sunilda’s hand writing. I wonder if my colleague had a hunch at that time that he would go away soon. When I went to interview him several years ago about a story I was writing on his childhood in Bangladesh’s Faridabad, Sunilda had given me a signed copy of one of his books of poems, which was flicked by one of my friends who borrowed it. ( If you are reading this, can I please have it back now that Sunilda will never again sign another book?)
I met and spoke to Sunilda too many times to point out any one specific standout memory but my impression of him has always been of a man who loved life and adored literature. He had a hearty way of saying “hello” on the phone, jovial and full of life. And when he met you in person he smiled warmly as if your visit had really made him happy.
I will always remember Sunilda’s colourful printed—mostly batik— kurtas which he wore in all my interviews conducted at his house. Each time I met him, I noticed his health deteriorating, but though he was old—79 (but wasn’t 79 supposed to be the new 49?) and ailing, it still feels like a shock that Sunilda is gone. Maybe because it was so sudden.
He died in his sleep, reportedly of a massive heart attack at 2 in the morning. It was an auspicious day—Maha Ashtami (or, technically, Navami)—a day any pious, goddess Durga-believer would die for to die on—but Sunilda was a diehard atheist. So that wouldn’t have meant much to him.
Speaking of his atheism, I remember him narrating the following incident to me and I remember the unmistakable glee with which he narrated it: “When I was a young boy in Bangladesh, I was once put in charge of guarding a pandal that housed the Goddess Durga and all the deities who accompanied her. I found the idol of Saraswati very beautiful. I was dying to kiss her. So I waited till everyone left the pandal and then I went over and felt her up and kissed her. When I wrote about this in one of my stories, I had the Hindu fundamentalists baying for my blood. But I never regretted it. I have kissed many girls after that. But that, my first kiss, was the best.” Sunilda smiled self-satisfactorily as he narrated this. As I remember Sunilda, his smile is what I remember.
Naturally, the literary world in Bengal—as well as the rest of India and no doubt in other parts of the world (notably Bangladesh)—is expressing their grief and sorrow at the loss of one of Bengali literature’s most respected writers. But I wanted to ask Taslima Nasrin how she is feeling now.
After decades of being lauded for his literary accomplishments Sunilda suddenly found his personal reputation shattered by allegations of sexual harassment by fellow author Taslima Nasrin. When I interviewed Sunilda on this subject barely a month ago, he looked frail and tired and a little sad. In Calcutta there are murmurs about how “Taslima must be feeling really guilty now.” [In the latest issue of Outlook, we also carried a letter by Prof Rukmini Bhaya Nair stating how she had an experience not dissimilar to incidents noted by Ms Nasreen — Ed]
I just spoke to Taslima Nasrin on the phone. This is what she told us:
"I am shocked to hear that he died. I didn’t expect it to happen so soon. I criticized him for what he did and I will never forgive him for that but of course I didn’t want him to die so soon. I grew up reading his writing and I respected him as an author. One of my friends from Calcutta who is visiting me in Delhi got a phone call this morning. That’s how I came to know. We immediately turned on the television. I was shocked to see his recent photographs. I didn’t realize how sick he had become. But no, I do not feel even a tinge of guilt about making public that he molested me.
But you know, what the problem with our country is that when someone achieves greatness in one field, he is immediately put on such a pedestal that he can do no wrong. He achieves sainthood and it is sacrilege to say anything against him. And anyone who has the gumption to criticize someone who has just died, no matter what his faults, is demonized. As I’m sure I will be. But I have never been afraid of what people think. Sunil and I had a lot in common. We were both atheists. And we both had a love for Bengali literature. I used to think that we were also fiercely against stifling of freedom of expression, until he supported the ban of my book. These two blotches against his character have lowered my esteem for him and even at this time, I have no hesitation in pointing this out."
I noticed after the allegations, though Sunilda told me he wasn’t affected by them, he wrote several articles in several publications about being a “bhalobashar kangal.” I felt he was deeply affected by the blot on his reputation and he tried to establish his constant hunger for love if only to vindicate his actions.
Some of Sunilda’s friends and close associates shared their memories on many facets of his personality. Here are some of them:
Author Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay: "Sunil and I sat side by side for years while we both worked for Desh Patrika (ABP Group’s literary magazine). Not once was he rude to anyone or shouted at anyone. He was a paragon of humility."
Nabaneeta Deb Sen: “I rushed here (to his house) when I heard the news. I will miss him very much. My only comfort is to know that one day we will all go away.”
Shankar: “I am saddened beyond words. He was a great author and it’s a big loss to the literary world.”
Also Read: Sunil Gangopadhyay wrote for Outlook on the 50th anniversary of Partition
Elsewhere: Parabaas | Poem Hunter | Sunil Gangopadhyay | At South Asian Literary Recordings Project - readings by the master from his works, with a long preface in English | Translations by Arunava Sinha