The railway station lacked a name. It was not even a station for it was devoid of the very basics – a platform or a ticket counter. It remained an insignificant space adjacent to one of India’s innumerable railway tracks, hastily cordoned off with barbed wires by the military for their requirements. World War II was underway. Countless trains passsed, carrying allied soldiers from far-off places.
It only had military nomenclature, the cryptic alphanumeric cryptic code ‘BF332’. The locals and the railway staff baptised it with another ingenious name, Andaa Halt, which described the sole purpose of its existence – to serve soldiers with a paltry meal of loaves and eggs.
This was the setting of a short story by Ramapada Chowdhury, considered a milestone in Bengali fiction, aptly titled “Bharatbarsha” or “India”. The railways and its solitary stations recurred, almost as leitmotifs, through Chowdhury’s work.
Born in the small railway town of Kharagpur, now in West Bengal, in 1922, he considered the growth of the railways an important aspect of the transformation of India. “In a train in India,” he saidin a rare interview for a documentary, “one has to sit with people from all castes, creeds and religions, people one can avoid in everyday life. Once you buy a ticket, you have to sit in an overcrowded compartment among any and everybody.”
Because his father’s railway job meant that the family often moved from one place to to another, Chowdhury was exposed to the stark contrasts of India from an early age. He settled in Calcutta in the early 1940s, to study English Literature at the prestigious Presidency College. The recluse that he was, however, he would shy away from the social spaces in the college, such as the canteen, which was frequented by, among others, Satyajit Ray and Siddhartha Sankar Roy, who went on to become the Chief Minister of West Bengal.
Instead, he would spend his time at restaurant nearby, discussing literature with friends. At that point of time, Chowdhury thought of himself as an avid reader, but had no intention of becoming a writer.
An early beginning
It was during one such meeting that his friends challenged him to write a short story. Chowdhury agreed. He wrote his first short story, “Udayasta” (“Sunrise to Sunset”) sitting in the same restaurant, over innumerable cigarettes and cups of tea. It was published in a prominent newspaper of the day, Jugantor. Chowdhury was just over eighteen then.
He began writing seriously in his mid-twenties. However, his first three collections of short stories, all self-published, failed to attract readers’ attention. Success came only with the fourth collection, Darbari. The title story was a fictionalised account of a European named Jonathan McCluskie, narrated by a railway employee Rajanibabu. McCluskie wished to settle among the Munda tribes who lived around a nondescript station named Lapra. He aspired to become a Munda himself, even marrying a Munda woman.
However, he unknowingly attracted other Europeans to the place, and within a short span of time a settlement of Europeans began to thrive. The local Mundas were converted to Christianity, and yet looked down upon by the Europeans. McCluskie and his wife were ultimately killed by the clergy in an attempt to stop a brawl between the local Mundas and the European settlers. The success of Darbari earned Chowdhury his first writing contract. His debut novel Pratham Prahar (The First Hour), was based on, no surprises here, the railways.
Merciless with the middle-class
Like many other writers of his time, Chowdhury went on to find employment at the Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika, where he ran its Sunday supplement for many years. Arguably his biggest breakthrough came with the novel Banpalashir Padabali – based in rural Bengal – which was serialised in the prestigious literary Magazine Desh and this found hundreds of thousands of readers every week. The novel became a sensation and earned Chowdhury a permanent place among the pantheon of popular and revered Bengali writers. It was made into a film by the Bengali cinema megastar Uttam Kumar, who directed as well as starred in it.
Chowdhury went on to concentrate on the urban middle class and their inner contradictions in his fiction, often imbuing his novels with cinematic qualities that led to films adaptations. His novel about the death of a young child servant owing to the apathy of his middle-class employers (Kharij) was filmed by Mrinal Sen, who also based his Hindi film Ekdin Achanak on Chowdhury’s novel Beej. And Tapan Sinha made the film Ek Doctor Ki Maut from Chowdhury’s novel Abhimanyu. He also filmed Chowdhury’s Ekhoni in Bengali.
While much of his work was associated with the urban middle-class, two of Chowdhury’s best-known novels broke away from this space. His historical novel Lalbaii had the Bishnupur gharana of music as its setting, while Dwiper Naam Tiyarong depicted a saga of human settlement on a desolate island. Still, his Sahitya Akademi work in 1988 came for his novel Bari Bodle Jaay, based on his own experiences as a tenant, which portrayed the trials and tribulations of the urban dweller constantly on the move between different houses. Among the other awards that Chowdhury won were the Rabindra Purashkar for Ekhoni, and the Ananda Purashkar.
Despite his success, Chowdhury remained the eternal recluse, shying away from public appearances and meeting the media. He also wrote far less than his peers, limiting himself to one novel a year during much of his writing career – which earned him the affectionate sobriquet of “non-writing writer” from his fraternity. That might seem unfair for someone whose oeuvre comprises a little under 50 novels, and about 150 short stories – but it actually reveals his attention to quality, instead of playing the quantity game that many of his peers did.
Along the line, Chowdhury played a vital role as editor, spotting and nurturing innumerable young talents into becoming accomplished writers under his tutelage. Chowdhury also believed that “quitting is an art” and decided to retire from writing – an unprecedented feat in the Bengali literary space. He went back to being a reader, as he had started out, leaving his mark as one of the very few writers who cast a dispassionate but probing eye on human weaknesses and the faultlines of society.