Just as the memories of my adolescence and youth were becoming hazy and faded under a flurry of present-day experiences, a letter from the editor of Desh on the magazine letterhead sparked something of a crisis. The editor had ordered me to write about the old days – why and how I became a writer, how my books were published, etcetera. In simple terms, he had asked me to write the secret story of the storyteller. Strangely, no sooner have I picked up my pen to perform the editor’s bidding than the skies of Calcutta have suddenly turned dark.
Perhaps I should begin my story by talking about literature. Like many other girls and boys in Bengal, my first piece was published in the school magazine. I was a student of class eight then. When I went back home with it, far from encouraging me, my father scolded me resoundingly. Instead of being smart, he advised me, concentrate on arithmetic. I was quite upset then, and a little hurt too. But later I realised why my father was annoyed. He didn’t want his young children to make the same mistake he had made and lose their way in the forest in pursuit of the golden stag of literature.
Who knows what influence his viewpoint could have had on me eventually. But one day he launched his large family from two marriages on a sea of uncertainty and sailed away to the other side of the ocean of life. And my trials by fire began.
I was only 13 then. I managed to pass my matriculation examination a few months later and was admitted to Surendranath College. (This institution, earlier called Ripon College, held a special place in my heart because Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay studied here too.) My mind was set on getting a job, but in the vast unfamiliar city of Calcutta who would give a job to an unknown boy?
Now that the guardian who wanted me to stay away from literature was gone, I even sent a piece furtively to the college magazine. I caught the attention of fellow students and teachers on the strength of a piece of mine I read out at a literary gathering. One or two of my well-wishers began to harbour the idea that I would also excel at the coming Intermediate examinations. But disappointing everyone, I got an ordinary first class, after which I bid a final adieu to Surendranath College and went out broken-hearted to the street named after Mahatma Gandhi.
I wandered about desperately in search of a job, but there were countless obstacles. I knew no one who held a high post in this enormous metropolis of Calcutta, my clothes were dirty, and legally I was a minor. I hawked various goods on the street, and tried to sell things to shops under the guise of an order–supply business. One day I asked a stranger at a roadside tea shop on Canning Street, “How do those who have no support survive in this city?” Smoking his bidi, he answered, “There’s not one man but two to rescue helpless middle-class Bengalis from their woes – the great Hahnemann and the great Pitman. For those who have no other options, there’s either homoeopathy or shorthand.”
This valuable advice prompted me to take Pitman’s name with reverence and immerse myself in learning shorthand. The advocate Girindreshekhar Bose, my late father’s close friend, used to have a typewriting machine. An extremely kind man, he handed over his expensive machine to an amateur without hesitation.
To overcome my regret at having to give up my education, I used to read in various libraries and sometimes try to write weighty pieces. Thanks to the good offices of a generous neighbour, Bhabesh Chandra Gangopadhyay, one such piece reached Pranotosh Ghatak, the editor of the Dainik Basumati newspaper. Ghatak published it in the Sunday supplement. Other than in school and college magazines, this was my first officially published piece.
“They will probably pay you for the piece,” Bhabesh Da told me. I waited several weeks without having my expectations fulfilled. I sent another piece to Basumati, and this was published as well. This gave me the courage to send one to Anandabazar – this too was published on a Sunday. Even if I hadn’t got an education, I consoled myself, my writing was being published in important newspapers.
Eventually I earned the title of a shorthand expert. May all of god’s blessings be showered on you, Bibhuti Da, for taking me to meet the famous barrister Noel Barwell. It was thanks to you that a luckless, bewildered young boy from Howrah got a job with an English barrister, which changed the course of his life. God must have reserved for me the honour of being the last clerk to the last English barrister at the Calcutta High Court.
What did the almighty have in mind when he dragged an inexperienced, scarcely educated, scrawny young man out of a dark lane in Howrah’s Chowdhurybagan and brought him face to face with an Englishman whose learning was legendary, and who had built a formidable reputation for himself at the High Court? Of the two, one had never gone beyond Howrah for all intents and purposes, had a bulbous head attached to a scrawny body, and had never seen an Englishman in his life – while the other was an MA from Cambridge University, a retired army colonel, and a First World War hero with several awards.
Thanks to my English employer’s indulgence, my new work life gradually revealed an extraordinary world to me. I had seen the enormous red building that houses the Calcutta High Court several times before, but I had no idea it was replete with such epic poetry and drama. I could not always fathom the significance of all the incidents myself, but first Bibhuti Da and later Mr Barwell personally patiently satiated all my curiosity.
Despite the busy life he led, the eternally amiable barrister would tell me various tales of the High Court. Having no experience at conversing in English, I was reluctant to talk. Guessing as much, Mr Barwell forced me to speak in English without fear, correcting my mistakes later over a cup of tea. I remember him smiling at me and saying, “Your English is excellent. It won’t take you more than ten days to iron out the rough edges. The only people who can never be taught to speak English are the jute mill managers who have come here from Scotland.”
He sowed the seeds of self-confidence in his new clerk with small observations such as this one. My fear of speaking English vanished almost immediately.
Excerpted with permission from Dear Reader: A Writer’s Memoir, Sankar, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, HarperCollins India.
Disclosure: Arunava Sinha is the editor of the Books and Ideas section of Scroll.in.