The path that Samaresh Basu, the centenary of whose birth is being observed in 2024, chose to become a writer was a lonely but determined one. Instead of returning to his factory job, he took up writing as his profession. In an interview, fellow-writer Sunil Gangopadhyay said, “Samaresh-da maintained a strict routine when it came to writing. He made up his mind to make writing his life. Every morning, he would sit down to write; in the stifling heat of the afternoon, he would still be writing.”

Perhaps Basu had no choice since he had made writing his livelihood. He wrote extensively under his own name as well as two other pen-names – Kaalkut, and Bhramar. But despite his huge body of works, he almost never repeated his subject or theme, giving his readers something new each time. In the 100th year of his birth, Basu remains one of the most prolific and yet original writers in the Bengali language.

Exceptional and controversial

Born in Dhaka, Bikrampur (now in Bangladesh), on 11 December 1924, Basu spent his early childhood in Dhaka, moving to Naihati (now in West Bengal) to complete his studies under his elder brother’s guardianship. He was barely interested in textbooks. What he did, though, was spend much of his time at the bank of the Ganga. The river, and the people whose livelihood depended on it, fascinated him the most. Several of his early novels, like Srimati Café or BT Road-er Dhaare go into the lives of labourers who used to work in the mills lining the Ganga.

In some interviews Basu gave later in life, he talked about the impression made on him by the brata katha – a form of folk tales – narrated to by his mother. From an early age, he took an interest in writing stories and illustrating. In Naihati, Basu, along with a few of his friends, used to publish a handwritten magazine, in which most of the pieces as well as drawings were his.

During his early days, he worked at a factory in Ichapore, but, becoming deeply involved as he did in trade unions and Communist Party ideology, he was imprisoned between 1940 and 50. It was in jail that he wrote his first published novel, Uttaranga. After his return, he decided to take up writing as his full-time profession, which was not an easy decision. His wife Gouri Basu stood staunchly by him.

Basu always asserted that he wrote for life, not literature. What he meant was that any story – even a thriller – becomes literature only when it makes readers socially conscious. Most of his books were built around contemporary themes such as political activism, working-class life, and sexuality.

In 1954, Amrita Kumbher Sandhane was published as a serialised novel in Desh magazine, which made him a writer of repute. New authors started idolising him and became curious about Basu and the start of his literary journey. In 1965 and 1966, Bibar and Prajapati were published back to back in the same magazine. These two novels are still his most popular, especially since they also led to some burning controversies over allegations of obscenity.

Both the novels were banned on charges of obscenity. There were public protests against the books on grounds of morality, while colleges and universities held seminars to determine what is obscene in literature. But Basu always defended his position with spirit till the Supreme Court of India lifted the bans. He was undisturbed by the whole fiasco and continued to write.

His novels Swikarokti and Patok were published soon afterwards. Though a believer in communist ideology at the beginning, the harsh controversies he was at the centre of within the party prevented him from being an ardent follower. However, he continued to stand with the common man and write about their daily struggles of survival.

The 1970s’ Naxal movement had a powerful impact on Bengal (especially the middle, and lower-middle classes). Basu also engaged with the movement through fiction. His Mahakaler Rather Ghora was published in 1977 – here, the protagonist Ruhiton Kurmi, an Adivasi, is a former tea-estate worker who, through his political journey, becomes one of the leaders and activists of the Naxal movement. It is sometimes perceived as a fictitious portrayal of Jangal Saontal (the leader from the Tarai region of Bengal). The novel concentrates primarily on telling the story of Ruhiton Kurmi, who embraces the political line of “annihilation of class enemies” and plunges into the Naxal movement.

Basu captured social realism through his literary work by writing about different classes and communities. One finds the story of weavers losing their battle in Tanaporen, the turbulent life of fishermen in Ganga, the clash of ideologies in Swikarokti and Srimati Café, and the self-alienation and emptiness of human beings in Bibar. Shamba, which was published in 1978 and was part of the travelogue series that he wrote under the pen name Kaalkut, delves into Basu’s spiritual restlessness and wanderlust.

Even though Basu’s health began to betray him, he prepared himself to write about the artist Ramkinkar Baij. The idea had bubbled in his mind for years, and he began interviewing Baij, his friends, and relatives. He also visited the places where Baij had been and saw his works. Basu’s health was delicate, and he didn’t want to start publishing the novel, in instalments, before he had written a fair portion. He was still writing when Baij died. Basu gave up the idea of an authentic biography, and pivoted to a biographical novel, which was serialised in Desh from 1986.

Baij was the first modern Indian artist to catch the attention of a serious novelist. For Basu, Dekhi Nai Phire was a way to understand what “creative vision” could mean. Surprisingly, or not, his first novel Nayanpurer Maati (written in 1946 and published in 1952) was also a story about sculptors and potters. Perhaps his literary life came full circle while writing about Baij. However, the author did not live long enough to see the story through to its end – he died on 12 March, 1988.

A hundred years later

Many of Samaresh Basu’s works were adapted as films. It was Bimal Roy who first adapted Basu’s Amrita Kumbher Sandhane, for which he shot some footage at the Kumbh Mela in 1960, Allahabad. Unfortunately, he couldn’t complete the film as he died while still shooting it.

Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta trilogy Calcutta 71, (a collection of stories depicting the Kolkata of the 1970s) includes one of Basu’s stories. Sen’s 1986 film Genesis also had a story written by Basu, which was later shown at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1977, Gulzar adapted Basu’s short story “Pathik” into a film titled Kitaab. While he was directing Qirdaar, a TV serial for Doordarshan, he added another story of Basu’s to the series. Though Basu’s story was named “Adaab”, Gulzaar changed it to “Khuda Haafiz”. Gulzar’s Namkeen (released on television) was based on Basu’s Akal Bosonto. Both Bibar and Prajapati (his most controversial works) were also adapted for the screen. So was his short story “Paari”, which the director Goutam Ghose turned into the film Paar.


Basu’s grandson Prachetash Samaddar (son of his youngest daughter Mousumi Samaddar, née Basu) said, “My grandfather died when I was four. But unlike other grandchildren whose grandparents died early, I had the privilege of getting to know him through his writings, even though he was long gone. My discovery of him was deeply personal as I realised that while writing about the struggles of the subaltern, the angst of youth, crumbling middle-class morality, and sexuality, he was actually writing about his own lived experiences. I feel like I know the people in the stories, their fears, their language, their dreams, and their frustrations, because they live in the same world that I inhabit.”

Samaresh Basu’s family is creating a digital archive of his life and work. It will be launched later in 2024, and will perhaps help a new generation of readers just how powerful a writer he was.

Samaresh Basu in translation.