Portrait of an Artist

Amit Chaudhuri

The house was in a lane in a middle-middle class area which curved at a right angle at one end, and, at the other, led to the main road. During the Durga Puja, the balconies of the neighbouring houses would be lit with green and blue neon lights, and families would walk towards the end of the lane that curved to the right, and join the crowd that was either coming from or walking towards the goddess. Bank clerks, schoolteachers, small businessmen, with their wives and children, the boys in shorts and the girls in frocks, looking like the pictures of children on the covers of exercise books, formed that tireless crowd. On the other side of the lane, after one had crossed the main road, one came to a lake with spacious adjoining walks where couples strolled in the evening, and children, accompanied by maidservants, came to play. Binoy and I would walk past the lake in the afternoon, when women washed saris or scoured utensils with ash on its steps, and the heat had just ebbed into a cloudy, dream-like vacancy.

It was in my uncle’s house that, during one of my visits, I met my cousin’s English tutor, whom they never referred to by name, but called ‘mastermoshai’. He was once a manager in an English firm, but had apparently left it after his wife and children had died in a motor accident. After that, he had roamed the streets of Calcutta for a year, seldom returning home, and only lately had he reached, once more, a kind of settled state. He now lived in his house with his servant, Ganesh, and gave English tuition for a small fee to children like my cousins. How he had materialised into my cousins’ lives I never really found out, but I gathered that he had been recommended to them by a relative on their mother’s Side.

When I met mastermoshai I was 16 years old, and had had a poem published in the Youth Times, a magazine now defunct. Prior to the meeting, while I was still in Bombay, my cousins had shown it to him, so that when I arrived, Binoy smiled and said to me, ‘Mastermoshai was very impressed by your poem.’ On Saturday morning, I saw a bespectacled man in his early fifties, dressed in a shirt and lungi, enter the small room where Binoy and Robi studied. Approaching the room later, I saw an unlikely lesson in progress, for Binoy and Robi, and even little Mou, were sitting, heads bent, each staring at a book, while the bespectacled man seemed to be reading the exercise books in which they had written their answers. It was a time of particular significance, for Binoy, at fifteen, would be writing his matriculation finals at the end of the year, as would Robi two years later. After the finals, Binoy would have to decide whether he would take Science or Commerce; he would have to be readmitted to his school, or to another school, depending on how well he did, for his upper matriculation exams; and his life would receive an abrupt push towards a certain direction. Even so, he would not be free of the English language and its literature for at least the next two years, although it would be increasingly marginalised from his life.

So they sat in that room, reading poems by Longfellow or Tennyson, or short stories by Saki, Binoy the least interested among them, for his favourite subjects were arithmetic and art, and his favourite pastime, football. But it said something for their affection for this man, who sat studying their answers, that even Binoy had begun to show signs of interest in the English lesson. Interrupting the tuition at one point, my aunt took me into the room and introduced me to the tutor. He had a very Bengali face, with short, slightly wavy, hair, a forehead of medium breadth, spectacles that belonged to his face as much as his eyes did, deep lines around his mouth, and teeth that jutted out from under his lip, making his face belong to the pre-orthodontal days. His teeth were tobacco-stained; I was to find that he, like most Bengali men, smoked constantly. Having now lived in England for several years, where not many men smoke, my memory of him taking a long puff on a cigarette is associated with the anachronistic, old-world atmosphere of Calcutta, with its small dreams and ambitions. I don’t know why I recall his face in such detail, except that there are some faces, especially those of men belonging to his generation, that have stayed in my mind, perhaps because the world that produced them is now inconceivable. He was not at all hand some, but I see that he might have been attractive to his wife when he was a young man. It would have been an attractiveness that is different from that of the young men of my generation; one has only to see old Bengali films to realise that men were slighter and smaller in those days, but with a proportionate elegance and agility.

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