Debesh Roy, who died in Kolkata on Thursday, May 14, at the age of 83, was never a writer for the masses. On the contrary fellow writers labelled him an “author of authors”. He resisted being called an author, but with true authorlike ingenuity had invented a new term for himself in Bangla – kawthoyal, a word he used to describe a storyteller.

“I don’t know whether such a word actually exists, but we have these habits in North Bengal,” he would quip. “We have a village named Geetaldah in Cooch Behar. Somebody in that village could sing and they named it Geetaldah. I coined the term after reading Walter Benjamin. Rajbanshis have such words in their vocabulary.”

Roy’s writing delves extensively into North Bengal, but he was irate when I asked about his North Bengal connections in an interview. “Haven’t you ever seen a game of football? Everything is decided on the field. The same is true for literature. It exists within the covers of a book. A writer can choose to write about his region or life, but that is not the main criterion of being a writer. In the contrary, I would say, a writer who can’t create the geography of his narrative is not a good writer.”

“See,” he continued, “I was once writing a story set in a place I know very well. One of my characters started walking from his home and went deep within a dense forest. There’s a tree at the spot, but I simply couldn’t remember what sort of tree it was. I had to write a letter to one of my students to find out. Do you understand why?” He stared quizzically at me and then said with childlike simplicity, “If it was a banyan tree, the man would walk in a particular way, but if it was a thorny tree, for instance, he would move differently. It turned out to be a thorny tree, so the character had to either walk on his heels or his toes.”

The beginnings

I could fathom what Roy meant. His writing is marked with vivid and immaculate visual descriptions of the characters and their locale, as though he could really see what he was writing; one would be tempted to call cinematic. And while many would consider the adjective derogatory for an art form which centers on word-craft, I am sure Roy, wouldn’t be one of them.

“I still want to make a film”, he had confided in me a couple of years ago. That he made documentary films is not well-known. He was also an avid photographer in his early days. “I once thought of taking up photography as a profession,” he had told me.

Debesh-da had an amusing tale about his early writing. “My elder brother Dinesh Roy had declared since his school days that he was a writer. Being his brother, I had no other option – I had to submit a story for our college competition. I coaxed my mother to instruct my elder brother to write a story for me. He reluctantly obliged. I secured first place in the competition.

“Next year, I came first again, this time for poetry. This time I had written it myself. Same for essays. When I was in the third year, I heard some of my friends discussing how difficult it was to be published in magazines from Kolkata. I took it as a challenge and sent a story to [the Bengali literary magazine] Desh. It was published.”

“Harkata”, as he had named the story, was a fascinating tale of a poor butcher named Nanku Kahar. Roy depicted him as a cruel, emotionless character who could even refuse putting aside some scraps of meat for his ailing child. At the end of the story, he forms a strangely humane relationship with a stray dog – two outcasts united by their common position on the lowest rung of the social ladder.

The stories

Roy was to go on to evolve into an exceptional storyteller with equal élan in terms of both form and content, to create a distinctive space for himself in Bengali literature. Religious and national identity – the focal points influencing South Asian politics and the source of endless conflicts within the region – form the fulcrum of Roy’s short story “Udbastu” (“The refugee”). He addresses the problems from a micro perspective, through the tale of a middle-class couple, Satyabrata and Anima, living in an urban settlement close to the border.

The mundane quietness of their life is abruptly smashed by a summons to the local police station. The narrative then shifts in language and form to the official records kept at the local police station. Satyabrata’s claims to have lost his BA degree certificate from Dhaka University in the flames of the Partition are termed dubious, for there is much doubt about his identity, thanks to newspaper reports of one Satyabrata, also a graduate from Dhaka University, being killed in a riot.

Anima’s saga is more sordid. There are narratives that suggest that she was sold by her family to a man named Animul, in return for their safety and passage to India. Anima, the same narratives suggest, returned from East Pakistan after sometime. Her father arranged a quick marriage. Many suggest that she was pregnant with Aminul’s child.

The matter was further complicated by rumours of Aminul’s crossing the border to be reunited with Anima. Has Anima changed her faith? Is she really Anima or a Muslim Kumkum? Is Satyabratya actually the Pakistani Aminul in disguise? The true ownership of the house they have bought also seems uncertain. Anima and Satyabrata are dispossessed of all identities sans one – their relationship with their daughter.

In “Nirastrikaran” (Disarmament), Roy reveals the sublime cruelty lying veiled in the mass psyche of common Indians, created by the numerous uncertainties surrounding their very existence in the society. He chronicles a tale of commoners traveling in a railway coach who are informed of a thief’s boarding from a specific station. They lock the door to ensure their safety, but someone seems to be banging on it.

Unsure of the stranger’s true identity, the passengers ignore the cries as the train moves. A few, who considered helping the man outside, choose to be silent – what if their fellow passengers consider them accomplices of thief? Roy narrates how the fundamental right of self-defence of the many ends up denying the fundamental right to life of another.

A Marxist to the core, Roy was associated with the Communist Party of India from his childhood. “I was first arrested for attending a demonstration when I was 13 or 14 years old,” he would boast. His chose to write about the lives of the Indian subaltern, but was indifferent to the dogma surrounding Marxist literature. “The communists are over-deterministic, they don’t understand art or literature”, he told me.

Yet, a true partisan to the core, he chose not to write fiction in Anandabazar Patrika (the Bengali newspaper published by the same company that publishers Desh, where he made his fiction debut), despite is being considered a home for some of the best works of Bengali literature. “They labeled communists anti-nationals,” Roy said. “I responded by calling them fascists. I refused their invitation to write.” Much later, however, he agreed to write commentaries in the illustrious newspaper.

The novels

Roy’s tryst with novels started in 1957. The first three novels, Shatarupa, Kaliyadaman and Astityer Ganit went into oblivion. “I never thought I would be able to write a novel,” he had told me. His fourth novel, Apatato Shantikalyan Hoye Acche (There’s Calm and Peace for Now) brought him into prominence. The novel revolves around the merciless politics surrounding 11 corpses, one of which the local politicians try to claim as that of their own party worker. They are more eager for political advantage than they are concerned about a member of their cadre who has gone missing.

Mafassali Britanto (A Mufassil Chronicle) captures the story of a poor rustic landless peasant family. They have sold off their last possessions to buy rice, and are starving for several days now. The novel revolves around the family’s desperate urge to procure food for themselves. In arduous attempts to survive, they try to feed on wild vegetables not even fit for animals, or seek alms from the local panchayat, only to be refused. Their last effort, of selling their sole head of cattle is also marred in local politics. Roy captures the reality of agrarian India and its countless citizens through this novel.

Teesta Parer Brittanto (The Saga of the Teesta), considered an epic of contemporary Indian fiction, was Roy’s true magnum opus. Through this novel he illustrates the utter buffoonery of the Indian State in creating the Teesta Barrage Project, which couldn’t bring any discernible development to the lives of the poor people inhabiting the hinterland of the Teesta river. He captures the skirmish of the landless with the landholders, as well as the identity politics of the region, with a grace comparable only to the classics of world literature.

In his last epic novel, Barisaler Jogen Mandal (Jogen Mandal of Barisal) Roy illustrates the struggles of the Dalit leader of undivided Bengal and the first law minister of Pakistan, Jogen Mandal. Through this novel he throws light on a lesser-known episode of India’s Independent struggle, and the rise of Dalit identity politics of India.

The critic

Roy’s novels are characterised by short episodes, simultaneous narrations, and the use of dialects. He reinvented myths and folklore, and incorporated traditional narrative methods in storytelling. Like his contemporary Milan Kundera and the illustrious Henry James, Roy too explored the art of the novel through his long essays compiled in two books – Uponyas Niye (Regarding the Novel) and Uponyaser Notun Dhoroner Khonje (In Search of a New Kind of Novel).

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s first novel in Bengali, Durgeshnandini, marred the development of indigenous prose narratives, argued Roy. The European novel, in contrast, was a natural extension of previous attempts at prose narrative. According to Roy, extreme reliance on the English novel halted the natural evolution of Bengali fiction.

In the final chapter of his book Uponyas Niye, Roy elucidated on the gradual evolution of the indigenous form of fiction in other Indian languages. He praised authors like Fakir Mohan Senapati, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and Vijaydan Detha, and eulogised the first novelist of both Urdu and Hindi literature, Munshi Premchand, for creating a truly Indian form of narrative.

“I can see the artistry of ancient carpenters in Premchand’s work. They never touched a tree unless it was at least two centuries old.” These are the last lines of the book. Perhaps Debesh Roy was in search of a similar form, something that would capture the truth and essence of the diverse lives, dialects and cultures of Bengal.