A journalist in a big city knows stories that are only available to those who see humanity at its darkest, freest, and most vulnerable. Doctors, maybe, criminal lawyers, perhaps. Politicians, certainly. There is a reason why Charles Dickens started his writing life as a city scribe, and why Sketches by Boz, his first published work, trod the melting path between fiction and journalism.
Those of us who try to write lives from more shaded, guarded spaces – such as the university – wink at them with charmed envy. Most of the time, journalism fails to become literature – even when it tries. But when it does, it carries the grit and dust and brutal shine of naked life that few spheres of life can bring.
Jhimli Mukherjee-Pandey wrote books that brought vernacular Bengal, with its back alleys and murky closets, into throbbing life in English. Her co-authored book, A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi, the autobiography of Manobi Bandopadhyay, written together with Bandopadhyay, was a beautiful and intimate account of a starkly unusual life – that of the first transgender person who became a college principal in India.
There is a pure, unadorned simplicity in the writing of this book, a refusal to engage in rhetorical experimentation in telling the story of a human being whose entire life might come across as an experiment to most people. When does a person born as a boy realise that they are at their fullest as a woman? What heartbreaks does it bring?
What moved me no less in the book was the story of a provincial youth from Naihati in Hooghly district, making their way through a bildungsroman of love and struggle in Calcutta, such as to belong to the intellectual cosmopolitanism at Jadavpur University, mocked by urban peers and yet supported by kind professors such as Shankha Ghosh. Though it was another’s story, I learned to recognise Jhimli’s signature honesty of style in that book, all the way to the difficult but inevitable encounter with political power that Manobi faced in her rich, uphill life. I taught this book in an undergraduate course at Ashoka University and was struck by the urgency with which students connected to it.
A pleasant person with a lost and innocent expression – every time I met her in the Times office, at a literary festival or an event – Jhimli wrote incisively and intricately about sex. Her novel, Not Just Another Story, revealed the red-light district of Shonagachhi with an earthen candour.
It tells the gut-wrenching story of three generations of women in sex work – Saraju, Malati, and Lakshmi – beginning with the horror story that forced a girl from Bangladesh into prostitution. Again, the crystalline honesty of Jhimli’s narration refused to change in the face of a painful and difficult subject that could just as easily become salacious.
We had a riveting discussion on errant and enslaved sexualities at a session at the Times Literary Festival in Calcutta, on this novel and one of mine, The Scent of God, which narrated a queer romance in a Hindu Monastic boarding school – moderated by Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap, known for her groundbreaking work with the prostitutes of Shonagachhi.
Jhimli was just as honest and scathing while speaking about this as she’d been in her written word. But I could not miss the fine film of sadness across her eyes.
That fine film said everything about Jhimli – the humanity that made her the writer, the journalist, and the human being that she was. I read many of her newspaper stories, particularly those on education, arts, and culture, but it was her personality that lived through her writing.
To this day, I don’t know how she did it all – work as a senior journalist in a leading daily, write memorable books, be a responsible mother, and yet always find time for friends. We met up whenever I was in Calcutta and hung out in the evening, be it the press club, her office, or at a literary event or a festival.
For quite a while now, she’d been planning to take me for a “shorbot” at Paramount in College Street – eyes dancing in delight whenever she mentioned it. The pandemic took the city away for two years from my life, and friends and family. Now I don’t think I’ll ever have the heart to go to Paramount.
This morning, an incredulous tweet from a common friend, Jashodhara Chakraborti, jolted me from my drowse. “Jhimli, I cannot believe you’re gone,” Jash had tweeted, along with the TOI news clip. Another common friend, Mona Sengupta, called almost soon after, her voice heavy.
My drowse became a daze – the pandemic has robbed us of so much life, most of all, of the reality of people with whom we might have laughed and joked a week ago, that the death itself feels like a fiction. Jhimli passed away in a car accident that left her family injured but alive.
Her reality, so alive with me in her emails and phone conversations, not to mention her books on my shelves, makes fun of me as I write. She had interviewed me a couple of times and written about my work. Much as I admired hers, and sought to introduce it to young people, this was not the occasion where I imagined I’d write about her. Bye Jhimli – your smile, your words, and your honest love will always be with us.
Saikat Majumdar is a novelist, critic, and academic.