In Kolkata, looking for a writer called Sunil Gangopadhyay, I got lost in a maze of long tree-spiked avenues. They were lined with blocks of flats; this was a residential area for the upper middle class, who seemed not to believe in street names. By now the morning mist had lifted, and left an innocent village smell of wood smoke behind. I suggested in English to the driver, who spoke some, that he should ask for directions. The driver didn’t want to. He felt the people here were too rich and proud to answer a poor man like him. “Sir,” he said, “please to ask them yourself.”

He pulled up beside an elderly man in a crisply pressed khadi tunic and dhoti. This representative of the bhadralok had a shopping bag in one hand; the other clutched a dripping packet wrapped in newspaper. Carrots lifted tufted heads from the bag; a not-unpleasant smell of fresh fish and newsprint rose from the packet.

He stopped and stooped to the car window. I asked for directions. “Addresses are of no use in Kolkata,” he replied in a Cambridge accent. “But who is the person you want?” I told him. “Ah, of course,” he said and instructed the driver in what sounded like upper-class Bengali. I thanked him and said, “We’re lucky to meet you. I had no idea you knew him.”

“Why do you think I know him?” inquired the old gentleman. “I am only a small person. I have never met him. But every citizen should know where our famous writers live. Sadly, few are left since my friend Buddhadeva Bose passed on.” He inclined a courteous head and walked away.

I was still stunned when I met Sunil Gangopadhyay. He gave an impression of bulk, with a heavy, tranquil, Buddhalike face. When he was told about the encounter, a mysterious smile came to it and he said, “Once it wasn’t rare to find such people in Kolkata. Now it has become rare. It’s a great pity.”

His novels were widely read, though he was mainly a poet. He also worked on a newspaper. His flat indicated that he had, in terms of income, become part of the middle class, though he would perhaps prefer it otherwise. He is a Marxist, but not unreasonably so. The room where we sat contained books; a painting or two; the appurtenances of a Kolkata intellectual’s life. He seemed comfortable in this life; perhaps a little taxed by its demands. He tried to explain his city.

“I remember the 1946 riots here. I was 12 then. Where we lived, in north Kolkata, there were riots of great magnitude. We watched Muslims killed on the streets. Nobody picked up the bodies and a terrible stench came from them. Then, after five or six days, rigour mortis set in and the corpses actually sat up. I saw them sitting up in rows, a horrible spectacle from our window.”

He talked slowly, in a meditative manner, unlike the ferocity and violence of his fiction and poetry in translation. “At this time Mahatma Gandhi came to Kolkata to plead for peace. He had been to East Bengal, but could achieve nothing there; he was booed. He was stationed in a house near Beliaghat, a Muslim area. We Hindu school kids went to him and he insisted that we share some water with the Muslim boys. We did and we were elated to have done it.

“When Independence came the older people were enthusiastic, but we were leftists in my family. We thought it was not really Independence and shouted slogans. ‘Yeh azaadi jhooti hai: this freedom is false.’ We expected all the war profiteers would be hanged from the lamp posts. But nothing happened. For my family, Partition was more important than Independence. Like many other families here, our old home was in the east and we lost all our land. Others were cheering. In my house, though we were leftists, we were crying.”

The weeping went on for years, Gangopadhyay said. “Until 1950 there were riots on both sides of the new border. These were retaliations, and many more were killed. And what sort of a border was this? Mr Charlton was sent from London to decide where it should be. He came here for 14 days with his knife. He cut and said, ‘This piece goes to India.’ He cut once more and said, ‘This piece will be Pakistan’s.’ The man had never seen these places, never known what kind of people lived there.

“As for the Congress leaders, Gandhi was right when he said they should have dissolved the party once Independence was certain. See how easily they accepted it all, Charlton’s butchery, everything. They were not the kind of people who could run a country. Essentially they were agitators who were equipped to oppose authority, rather than hold it. Their folly caused great tragedies in Punjab and Bengal. Nehru was an idealist with the wrong ideas.

“He thought people had no religious bias. He was wrong. The division of Hindus and Muslims existed long before 1947. In Bengal, I know that the Hindus hated the Muslims. I saw the contempt with which my grandfather treated wealthy, educated Muslims. He made them sit outside his house; he wouldn’t even give them water. There have been no major communal riots here for some years now. But there are few Hindu-Muslim marriages. How Nehru decided Hindus and Muslims could be friends remains a mystery.”

“But the BJP hasn’t had much success in Bengal,” I said.

“Not yet. But the young people want a change. Some may be inclined to the Left because of tradition, but they have no objections to the caste system and no interest in the class struggle. They’re more materialistic than ever before. We have missed out badly on education. From the outset, there was no effort to provide it. In other fields, there is some slight improvement. For example, we are proud to be almost self-sufficient when it comes to food production.”

He paused for effect and continued, “We ignore the fact that only 50 per cent of the population has the buying power to feed itself adequately. Many people still starve, and we cannot help them.” His lips twitched; he was laughing. “Some people have expressed surprise that there has never been a large-scale peasant revolt in India. This is because of the Hindu religion. The godmen say you cannot escape your fate. If you were born poor, God meant you to starve all your life. If I were in power I would ban all religious activity.” He concluded with a sour expression, “But hypocrisy is the Indian hobby, common to everyone.”

“Corruption is an offshoot of hypocrisy, the habit of lying to oneself. If bribery is banned, the machinery will cease to operate. If you don’t keep up the corruption level, no task will ever be done. It’s part of the tradition. As for revolutions, they need a leader. In this huge mass of people, where is there such a person? The situation is wrong. A revolution may create its own leaders, but it is also obliged to feed its own children. In addition, we don’t seem to know what India is. There are movements in some states towards a separate identity. I really don’t know.” He had a quality of reticence that was not Bengali. “I don’t want India to break up,” he said. “But look at the flaws in the national character. We have an endless capacity for hero worship, but we also pull down our heroes. That is another aspect of our hypocrisy.”

He saw me off, smiling. “I couldn’t help you much,” he said. “I think as you ask questions about India, you will find many other people like me, who will point out what is wrong. That is, of course, glaringly clear. But I don’t think anybody will be able to point out a way to make it right. If he could, he would be a leader, and India’s tragedy is that it has none.”

Excerpted with permission from Where Some Things are Remembered: Profiles and Conversations, Dom Moraes, Speaking Tiger Books.