It’s the weekend, again, but characterised by a strange and perturbed stillness. No calling bells from the newspaper-wallah, cable guy or vegetable vendor. The streets are bare, and our neighbourhood cafe has been shuttered for twenty-five days now. Before the lockdown, over refills of coffee, I might have been having an adda around this time, with Chinmoy Guha, who’d be taking a break from his triple-shift schedule: work calls or lectures in the daytime, public seminars in the evening, and immersing himself in a student’s PhD thesis post dinner. Instead, our interview now has to take place over the phone.
Guha is a professor and former Head of Department of English at the University of Calcutta, a Bengali essayist and translator, a linguist and scholar of French literature – and the latest winner of the Sahitya Akademi award for Bengali for his book of essays, Ghumer Dorja Thele (Pushing Open the Doors of Sleep).
Perhaps it’s this forced social distancing that compels my reappraisal of Guha, as I dial his number, to think of him not as the friend I’ve come to know through these past few years, but as others see him. An academic and researcher, a cosmopolitan, equally at home with philosophy and cinema, translation, poetry, the art of the novel, and scholarly criticism, the custodian of a literary tradition that goes back to the Bengal Renaissance, a man who thinks and speaks in verse much of the time, but doesn’t publish in this form, this unusual blend of a desi brew and Parisian coffee.
A few rings, and then his inimitable voice answers, deep but mellow, affectionate, like the spread of gur on morning toast: “Yes Avik, I was just thinking about you.” Excerpts from the conversation that followed:
We live in strange, surreal times. Ordinarily, being neighbours, we’d both go stroll down to the cafe for our “adda”. Instead, we’re compelled to do this over the phone. Do you think our present crisis will make us reappraise our relationship with the world, and with one another?
Avik, there is a strange feeling of emptiness. We are invaded by fear, a dismal tocsin. This wretched virus seems to have stripped us of all illusions of technical advancement and progress, and pushed us in front of a cracked mirror...Yes, it will surely lead to a reappraisal of the relationship between the self and the world. That would be a very humbling experience. I don’t think the world will be the same again. For the scar will remain for a long time, in the individual mind and the social psyche. We have never faced this mix of virology, statistics, media, and politics before the Corona pandemic.
Speaking of pandemics, it’s difficult not to bring up Albert Camus’s The Plague. Given the uncanny parallels between his novel and what we’ve seen across the world in the past 100 days, does that make Camus some kind of prophet? Or was he chronicling something inherent – and obdurate – in the human condition, namely, our hubris?
The twenty-eight-year-old Camus had started planning his book in 1942, which finally came out in 1947. The dark days of the German Occupation were obviously at the back of his mind. But it all began as the chronicle of a real epidemic with very realistic descriptions: “there was suspicion in the eyes of all.”
The situation is absolutely the same now. The same fear, bewilderment, suspicion, occasional arrogance. The similarities are uncanny, bizarre. Yes, it’s prophetic that Camus read the metaphysical aspects of the predicament, when the whole social fabric is radically transformed. But then, any sincere work of art is prophetic in some ways. What scared me most was the last paragraph of his book, where he describes how the bacillus never disappears for good. It lies dormant and then resurfaces one day in a happy city.
What surprises me is that while you’re a French linguistic expert, your day job is as a professor of English – and much of your literary output is in your native Bengali. What draws you to language?
l fell in love with the beauty of English in my early childhood. Later, I steeped myself in French. I adore these languages, but I chose Bengali as my creative medium, in the true tradition of Bengal. The other two languages stretched my imaginative space.
How did your love for language and literature develop? Which writers and books have had an abiding influence on you?
As a child, in the mid-’60s, I was sent to a kindergarten where there were several excellent native English speakers. At home, my dad was amazingly knowledgeable in English, and my uncle tried to imitate BBC English. All of this helped. Later on, I was influenced by the French scholar and poet, Arun Mitra. He changed my life.
I studied the French language and literature 22 hours a day! Even Derrida’s jaws fell apart when he heard my French. My favourite French writers are many: Paul Eluard, St John Perse, André Gide, Romain Rolland, Samuel Beckett (who wrote in French as well), Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and the new novelists. As for abiding influences, I would name Bankim, Tagore, Jibanananda, Buddhadeb Bose, Coleridge and Eliot.
It’s been said that among contemporary Indian authors, you’re perhaps the last tri-lingual writer...do you agree with that appellation? And isn’t it worrying if that’s indeed the case?
Well (I can almost hear him blush, over the phone), unfortunately, that seems to be true. I don’t know when the interest in other languages dried up – because the knowledge of other literatures injects new life into a writer. You know, we had a great heritage of multilingualism in the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries...Now, there is a crisis.
Let’s turn the lens to academics. Going back to my own student days two-and-a-half decades ago, I recall there was a certain bond between students and teachers – that seems to be missing today. Has academia in India lost its “zing”?
Love is what is missing in teaching. It is too mechanical, too predictable, it doesn’t teach the students to love the pursuit of knowledge. There is not enough respect. As a serious teacher, I experimented with passion, and it has paid off. I have discovered students, and vice versa. Some of them are gems!
Your friend and peer, author Kunal Basu, says about you: “Perhaps his biggest gift is the ability to transport his readers across the borders of the academy into the open spaces of public discourse and imagination.” It’s an appreciation I find echoed in many of your students. How do you see the role of a teacher, in today’s context?
Well, Kunal himself has done it as a teacher, as have others. This is what I have been trying to do all my life. I love to speak with passion and strike a wavelength with the audience. In my own humble way, I have created my own language in my academic lectures, and creative writing. I have tried to flow out.
You’ve won a number of accolades, including three knighthoods from the French Government, Vidyasagar Prize, Swatantra Samman, Lila Ray State Award for Translation – and the Sahitya Akademi. Which of these has been your most cherished award – and why?
Frankly, I’ve never thought of awards. After my PhD thesis on TS Eliot, I did a lot of translation: La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, Flaubert, Gide’s Strait is the Gate, Romain Rolland’s Danton, his correspondences with Tagore, and Kalidas Nag, almost all the major twentieth century French poets... It was a pleasant surprise to get the Lila Roy translation award in 2008. And the French honours show that the French care for my contributions. At some point, I began to write a column on my perceptions of world literature, for Rituparno Ghosh’s “Robbar”. I invented a new surreal language.
New in what sense?
In style, primarily. More dense, poetic. Yet the content was very authentic. I covered a great range... from Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Sterne, Apollinaire, Poe, Nietzsche to Yeats, Pound, Carl Sandburg, Jibanananda, and Sylvia Plath – and beyond. Maybe, in a way I was reviving the gharana of Buddhadeb Basu. The title of the book was Ghumer Dorja Thele. So the Sahitya Akademi award for this book gave me great joy! I thank the jury.
Being an established author seems to be back in fashion – and there’s a renewed interest among people from all walks of life, to pursuing this practice. What’s your advice to aspiring writers
Everyone has his own way. Sincerity is the most essential factor. Also, an awareness of tradition is important, even if one wants to break it. Think of our great predecessors. Weren’t some of them amazing?