No one remembers when and why I started calling my father Bondhu. It was a strange way to address a father, as the word means ‘friend’ in Bengali, my first language. The most likely explanation was that, playing with me one day, he might have said that the two of us were friends, and somehow that got stuck in my mind. Whatever the reason, that is the only name I remember calling him.
This did not create any problems in my early childhood. However, as I got older, I became very self-conscious about such an odd name for my father, and yet I cannot explain why I could not switch to the more acceptable Baba or something similar. When I was eight or nine, I used to study at a school called South Point. The school bus would transport me to and fro.
One day, for some reason, my father had to pick me up early. I had to go to the school office to ask for official permission to leave before time. I was asked whether someone had come to pick me up. I said, ‘Yes.’ They said, ‘Who?’ And at once I was in a crisis – I could not say Bondhu, yet uttering the word Baba was even harder. So, after much soul searching, I said, ‘Ekjon lok.’ A man. Luckily, that was enough for the office to let me go.
Fortunately, in my day-to-day existence as a child, I did not have to call out to him in front of my friends. By then I could manage to refer to him as ‘Baba’ in conversations with other people, so my secret remained well protected.
But there was one incident, from when I was about ten, that still remains with me: one day after Saraswati Puja, when thousands of clay idols are taken to the riverfront in the evening and immersed in the water, my father offered to take my friends and me to watch the spectacle. He was shooting a film then, and the production team had a rented van that could fit us all. This was very exciting for us, since no one had witnessed the immersion ceremony from such close quarters. We all piled into the van, sitting on the bench seats around the edge, and set off.
The immersion ceremony exceeded our expectations – we watched hundreds of Saraswati idols being carried into the water and then let go. After that, my father took us to a narrow lane next to Metro cinema, full of vendors selling various kinds of street food. One shop was selling kulfi ice-cream. My father offered to buy us all a kulfi each. A man brought the ice-creams to us. My father stepped out to pay, and instructed us not to get out of the van while he was away.
Suddenly a friend asked me if he could get a glass of water. The responsibility automatically fell upon me to call my father and convey the request. Now I was in a fix. My father was far away, in front of the kulfi shop, and I was not supposed to get out of the van. I was in a crisis again, and my young brain tried to find a solution where I could snag my father’s attention despite the general din and still protect my well-guarded secret nickname for him. Finally, I shouted, ‘Mrinal-da!’ – using the suffix to indicate older brother, and not realizing how absurd it must have sounded to my friends!
As I grew older, I was no longer afraid to be different and could refer to him as Bondhu in public. One day, during my high-school days, I watched Ray’s Apur Sansar for the first time. Towards the end of the film, when Apu (played by Soumitra Chatterjee) finally reunites with his little son Kajal, his son asks, ‘Who are you?’ and the bearded Apu answers, ‘Your bondhu.’ That was a beautiful confirmation for me.
As my circle expanded in college, my friends spent a good part of the day at our place. My father convinced them to call him ‘Mrinal-da’, as he was too reluctant to be addressed as kaka or a jetha (uncle). Since then, all my friends have referred to him as Mrinal-da, as has the rest of the world. A couple of my girlfriends have also addressed him as Bondhu, including Nisha, the person I would eventually marry, and her sister Jagriti. There was no need for Nisha to call him anything when we were simply school friends; but after we became a couple, she started calling him Bondhu too.
Excerpted with permission from Bondhu – My Father, My Friend, Kunal Sen, Seagull Books.