Friday, December 31, 2010

Ashoke Sen, my uncle

My uncle, Mr. Ashoke Sen died on the 19th of December 2010, in his home at Kolkata.

Ashoke Sen was a scholar in English Literature who graduated from the Bristol University, UK. On returning from UK, he hop-skip-jumped between several lucrative jobs in prestigious organizations, but couldn’t adjust himself to the disciplined regimentation of any of them. He even worked briefly as the editor of a magazine called Point Counter-Point, but this also seemed too much of a routine job for him. He finally quit working within the boundaries of an office administration, and started freelancing which suited his style of working. He wrote for the two well known newspapers, Telegraph and Statesman, initially book reviews, and later graduated to more expansive literary sphere.

During his initial years, uncle interviewed many well known personalities from the literary world, and published these interviews either directly or wrote articles based on these interviews. His interviews were refreshingly different from the usual run-of-the-mill interviews taken by professional journalists with their set of stereotyped questionnaires. Uncles interviews were conducted after immense preparations and had a lot of background information . What, however, gave his interviews their unique flavour was that these interviews were actually an exchange of literary thoughts between two academicians on an equal footing. They were radically different from mere documentation of the conversation between a celebrity and an eager-to-please journalist. I still remember the immensely readable interviews of Stephen Splendor and Lila Mazumdar.

Subsequently, he became a known name quite well known for his English and Bengali essay writings amongst the scholarly circles in Kolkata, and got involved in editing several Bengali anthologies. He had the natural advantage of being an incredibly avid reader with a phenomenal memory. His forte was his knowledge on old Bengali literature – especially Children’s literature. He was loosely attached to Shishu Sahitya Sansad – the agency responsible for promoting children’s literature in Bengali. He was a leading authority on Buddhadev Bose and his literature, a fact acknowledged by none other than Pratibha Bose (wife of Buddhadev Bose). He can truly be described as a Kolkata intellectual with a wide knowledge on films, theatres, music (Bengali as well as Western) and books but not the usual stereotype leftist-existentialist intellectual (the kind who swears by Kafka-Satre- Camus- Marx etc).

My uncle had a habit of reading anything and everything under the sun. He was not one who would accept someone else’s judgement about anything and would prefer to form his own judgement about everything. I recall one incident, when I, a the then smart-alec teenager, tried to impress him with my fledging knowledge on Existentialism and Albert Camus. It came as a rude shock when he started taking out books on these subjects including the legendary book of Kaufmann called “Existentialism”. Subsequently I rummaged through his library to discover that though he was not a great fan of Camus, he had at least 3-4 books of Camus. Likewise, my ramblings on Satre led to me getting a book on the development of Philosophy from Socrates and Satre, and then having to sit with him for a session on philosophical studies.

Uncle had an encyclopaedic knowledge on Bengali children’s literature. He could recall with ease, as to which the year a particular novel or a short story was published and in which particular edition of a “Puja Barshiki” – a capability which was exploited time and again by the various publishing houses. His favourite children’s authors were Shibram Chakrabarty, Hemendra Kumar Ray, Premendra Mitra, Buddhadev Bose and Kamakshiprasad. What was interesting was the fact that he did not like the conventional popular stories written by these authors but preferred some lesser known well written stories. For example, my uncle did not like “Harshavardhan and Govardhan” series written by Shibram Chakraborti– citing them as coarse low class humour which, according to him, Shibram had written for the masses. Uncle preferred a more subtle, sophisticated form of humour which was expressed better in Shibram’s lesser known stories like “Onko o Shahityer Jogphole (Fusion of Mathematics and Literature)”, “Kalantok Lal Phita (The Deadly Red Tapism)”, “Bibhutibhushon-er Shilalipi (The Stonehenge of Bibhutibhushan)” and “Patale Bochor Paanchek (Five years or so in Hell)”. Likewise, he preferred the Hemen Ray stories / novels like “Pretatyar protishodh”, “Bishalgarh-er Dushwashan”, and "Mrs Kumudini Chowdhury" over the more popular Jayanta-Manik or Bimal-Kumar series. In fact, he thoroughly disliked Jayanta-Manik whom he considered to be a poor copy of Sherlock Holmes series including the bumbling detective Sundarbabu (as Indian version of Lestrade). He advised me to read an obscure series of Hemen Ray – namely Hemanta – Robin, another detective duo, who had featured only in four books (Andhakarer Bondhu, Ratrir Jatri, Mukh aar Mukhosh and Bibhishoner Jagoron). On his advise. I also read and fell in love with the “Mamababu” series of Premendra Mitra (how many people remember that Premendra Mitra also wrote a detective series ?) and the “Chanchal” series of Buddhadev Bose (also a detective series). Other than the famous ones, Uncle also made me read some obscure novels or series of novels by authors who are now forgotten. I read “Sundarbane Saat Bachchar”, "Makorsha" (by Rajat Sen), "Chitragreeb" and "Juthapoti", the war series of Dhirendralal Dhar (Saroj-David series – remember), “Ajaykumar” of Monindralal Bose and "Durgom Pother Jatri".

His influence led me to extensive reading of children’s literature of the yesteryears including the Kanchenjangha and Prahelika series and we spent many a happy afternoon discussing merits and demerits of these children’s stories. In retrospect, I find it rather amusing that a Bristol educated literary personality, who was a leading intellectual in Kolkata, managed to have meaningful discussions with his class 6 nephew, about 30 years his junior on equal footing. This trait in him continued till the very end and consequently most of his friends were far younger than him.

Uncle had a passion for thoroughness and continuity. He seldom used to give any judgment on any author or film maker based on only one book or movie. I recall that he had to write a piece on Graham Greene, a usual run-of-the-mill article, and he bought the complete Graham Greene series just to prepare for this! Likewise he re-read all the Leela Majumdar novels before he took her interview (and me too – along with him; and in the process discovered a wonderful novel called “Tong Ling”, which, surprisingly, does not feature amongst her more famous works). He took me to the British Council for a film festival of Hitchcock but not before I had read “Hitch”, the landmark analysis of Hitchcock and the famous book written by Truffaunt on Hitchcock. I also recall a particular incident when he had discovered a factual mistake on Thakurbari in a magazine called “Sobjanta-Mojaru”. He made me correct it but before that, he made me read the books of Rani Chanda, Mohanlal Gangopadhyay and Abanindranath himself on this subject. Such exposure during the formative years has left a deep and indelible impression on me which probably accounts for my present day love for literature and films.

This thoroughness, of course, had some pitfalls. Quite often, he used to miss his deadlines - a trait which couldn't have made him popular with his editors. Also, when his analysis did not match the opinions expressed by other celebrities, he felt no qualms about ripping that person apart. I recall him criticizing Chidananda Dasgupta, (a legendary figure in film circle who was personally known to my uncle) for trying to put Ray’s Sakha Prasakha on the same pedestal as Charulata. He had no compulsion or inclination to be “politically correct,” and even his closest friends, from time to time were at the receiving end of his acerbic pen.

Uncle also had a remarkable ability of finding co-relations between stories and/or movies, possibly a sign of a good critic. It was refreshing to compare “Batashbari” of Leela Mazumdar and “the Enchanted Forest” of Enid Blyton; Jane Eyre and Rebecca with “Pakhi” by Leela Mazumdar (wonder how many people have read this novel); the multiple narrative style of “Ghare Baire” by Tagore with “Raat Bhore Brishti” of Buddhadev Bose (I also recollect him reminding me that there is a superficial similarity between the plots of “Ghare Baire” and “Raat Bhare Brishti” which is not of much significance). He also could spot the cross discipline similarities and co-relations – about how Dickens has influenced Bergman in “Fanny and Alexander” and how Buddhadev Bose’s “Bipanna Bishmay” is in fact an existential treatment of Jibananda’s legendary poetry “Aat Bachor Ager Ek Din”. He once pointed out to me that when Jibananda had written “Banolata Sen”, Bengali Poetry had also reached its 1000th year – a fact which led me to rethink about the first line of this popular poem (“Hazar Bachhor ami poth hatitechi prithibir pothe”) and wonder whether this was indeed a romantic poem after all.

I am indebted to him for introducing me to one of the greatest authors of the post Tagore era – namely Buddhadev Bose. I was introduced to his writings through his short stories, some of which are possibly the best children’s short stories written in Bengali. “Meenu’r notun juto”, “Prothom Dukkho”, “Hridayranjan-er Sharbanash”, “Haran Jyatha o Sujitda”, “Baba”, are probably the finest examples of children’s short stories in the world, and it is indeed sad that the world will never get to read or even know about the existence of these great stories. Likewise, for adult novels, he made me read “Golap Keno Kaalo” – an incredibly stylized Bengali novel. As per his usual style, he did not push Buddhadev Bose’s hugely popular “Tithidore” onto me (though he acknowledged that it is a great novel) but made me read “Patal Theke Alaap”, “Jedin Phutlo Kamol”, “Bipanna Bishmay” and “Moulinath”. Then came the articles and analysises of Buddhadev – “An Acre of Green Grass”, “Hothat Alor Jholkani”, “Kobi Rabindranath”, “Sanga Nishshangata Rabindranath” and last but not the least “Mahabharat-er Kotha”. Uncle was a great fan of Buddhadev, and was personally very close to him and his family. Yet he never tried to influence me, or force me into loving this author. He, in the strictest sense, brought the horse near the water, leaving him to drink when thirsty.

How was Ashoke Sen as a person? On first glance, he was not a nice person to know. Withdrawn, non-communicative and somewhat serious, he was not an easy person to talk to initially. He lacked normal social skills and would insist in mixing only with people whom he considered to be intellectually at par with him. If, however, one took the effort to break his shell of apparent impregnability, he was a nice person to talk to. He would then come down from his high horse of intellectual superiority, and become a regular guy. He was, in fact, quite a gossip-monger, a fact which he always denied vehemently (of course, gossip being so ‘non-intellectual’ and cheap) and enjoyed sharing the juicy gossips about the le-creme-de-la-creme in the perfect British manner.

I always felt that he never really came out of his teens – an eternal enfant terrible at large. His being the eldest son of a prosperous family (and therefore pampered) and not having an immediate family (and therefore no direct responsibilities) also reinforced this attitude. Thus he had the mood swings, hyper-sensitivity as well as the self-centered, self-indulgent nature of a teenager. This, to many, was difficult to handle - an intellectual giant with the emotional quotient of a child. This led him to become rather lonely during the last phase of his life, when he craved for a normal conversation with the normal people around him but alas, it was probably too late by then.
At the end of the day, one cannot help but feel sorry him. His Peter-Pan psychology coupled with his self created barriers made him lonesome. Despite his immense talents, my uncle somehow could never find the right direction, and thus could never put his abilities to their fullest use. Like “Kach” of Mahabharata, he seemed to possess the knowledge, but besieged by some unbreakable curse which prevented him from putting his knowledge to use. His last journey to the frontier was therefore a lonely one, mourned by his family and friends, not only about who he was but also about what he could have been, had it been otherwise.


  1. I hardly knew Khokon Mama except as a forbidding and stern entity encountered only at the Hazra bari..However Ma has many memories of a fond brother and the innumerable adda sessions peppered with discussions on literature, politics, films, the arts in general. She will miss him..

    Of course, my memories are more of the mischief you and I did in his room in his absence :)

  2. Khub shundar likhechish. Amar to Boromama r cheye Mamima r kotha beshi mone porchilo. We still have such fond memories of her.

  3. Dida golpo korto Boromama ar mamima Budhdhadev Bose er shesh jatray giyechhilo. Tor onek smriti Boromama r shonge.

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