The writer who taught the Bengalis their history, one book at a time | Tendency

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With a Sahitya Akademi award, an immortal character like Kakababu and plenty of controversy, he’s a writer who really had a story to tell.

Passed away on October 23, 2012

Bengali writers abound, but none have managed to write historical fiction as well as Sunil Gangopadhyay. He was Bengal’s most beloved novelist, historian and poet. As early as 1953, along with his friends, he plunged into the swirling world of literature by starting a poetry magazine called Krittibash – a magazine that was interested in publishing young poets with a unique voice. After that, his master’s pen would appear in many famous publications.

The childhood of a Bengali child is incomplete without the stories of the infamous Kakababu. It is a fairly normal tendency among the cabal of Bengali authors to have a series of detective characters incorporated into their body of literature. Just as Satyajit Ray had Feluda, Sharadindu Bandhopadhyay had Byomkesh, Sunil Gangopadhyay had Kakababu – a retired archaeologist who had a penchant for solving mysteries. This addiction would take him to distant lands to solve the mystery concerned.

Allen Ginsberg with Sunil Gangopadhyay in Calcutta (Tumblr)

Many may not be aware that Sunil Gangopadhyay shared a few moments of camaraderie with famous American beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg. Sunil Gangopadhyay even finds a mention in one of Ginsberg’s poems named September on Jessore Road.

However, his most notable contribution is that he has woven stories of Bengali history through his literary lens. It is an extremely difficult job to write historical fiction because it takes being well researched to properly engrave the fictional story in said historical backdrop. Sunil Gangopadhyay understood this perfectly.

His founding text Sei Somoy deals with the period in Bengal leading up to the revolt of 1857. His book provides the wide range of developments in Bengal during the 19th century. Its chapters are filled with famous personalities like Derozio, Vidhyasagar, Michael Madhusudhan Dutta among others. Gangopadhyay speaks of the newly developed cracks in society whereby the influence of the Nawabs was slowly diminishing. He goes into the grotesque details of Indigo imperialism and soldiers forced to use cartridges greased with pork and beef fat. He won the Sahitya Akademi for the beautiful controversies he presented in this book.

His book Moner Manush, which has now been adapted for film, is about the eclectic life of Lalan Fakir – a Sufi saint who graced Bengal soil with his moving music. Purbo Paschim is another book that should definitely be mentioned when talking about Gangopadhyay’s works. This novel testifies to the abundance of sectarian violence observed on both sides of Bengal after the partition of 1947.

“He was one of the best intellectuals among his contemporaries. The void created by his death cannot be filled ”were the exact words of President Pranab Mukherjee when Sunil Gangopadhyay’s body burned in Keoratola crematorium in 2012 and which perfectly sums up Sunil Gangopadhyay’s legacy.

This story was first published on ThisDay.app.

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