Portrait of an Artist
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.
Robi got up from his chair, and I sat down next to mastermoshai. Robi, sitting on the bed, and Binoy and Mou, looking up from their books, had formed a small, expectant audience. Mastermoshai was shy; he was expected to say something about my poem. When two literary men meet in Bengal, they do not ask each other personal questions, but straightaway enter realms of the abstract and articulate. Mastermoshai’s first question to me was, in an English accent tempered by the modulations of Bengali speech: ‘Are you profoundly influenced by Eliot?’ Though I was taken aback, I countered this with a few names I had recently discovered in the Penguin Modern European Poets series – Mandelstam, Montale, Brodsky. Mastermoshai was impressed. The next time he came to the house, he brought me a novel, a Penguin Modern Classic. It was Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett; the copy, he said, belonged to one of his ‘disciples’. The cover had a grim but beautiful picture, a pencil sketch, of a human skull. In the pages inside, difficult words had been occasionally underlined, and their meanings noted. A strange world had been described there, one that I could not make sense of. I took the book with me back to Bombay.
It was mastermoshai who first spoke to me of Baudelaire. He knew the names of the French existentialists and the titles of their books – Sartre, Camus, Being and Nothingness, The Fall – but his highest praise was reserved for Heidegger’s Being and Time. The words ‘being’, ‘subject’, ‘object’, frequently entered our conversations, especially when he was discussing my poetry, of which I had begun to produce sizeable quantities. ‘Every writer needs his Pound,’ he said to me. ‘Il miglior fabbro– Eliot’s better craftsman.’ He was my first impresario, showing my poem in the Youth Times to his friends and ‘disciples’. On another occasion, he compared himself to Leopold Bloom and me to Stephen Dedalus, adding, ‘Every writer needs a guide, a father-figure.’ On one level, he was a father to me, and on another level, a friend. For, behind the big talk about literature, a fondness had grown between us, based on the ardent exchange of ideas that belonged to a foreign language and continent, ideas probably already obsolete over there, but which here, in the comforting presence of relatives and friends, took on a unique intensity, a freshness; a friendship that could only have formed in a country with a colonial past. Even more provincial, and marginal to Europe, than Dublin was in the early 20th century, was Calcutta at the century’s close. Trams, rickshaws, markets, office buildings with wide, creaking stairs, bookshops, little magazines, literary critics, uncles, aunts, created this Dublinesque metropolis of which mastermoshai was a part.
By the time I visited Calcutta again, another one of my poems had appeared in the large, loose-leafed pages of The Illustrated Weekly of India. This magazine, easy to roll, generous to the touch, had circulated among members of my mother’s family and even reached mastermoshai. He had tucked it under his arm, emerged from my uncle’s house, and walked off to show it to his friends – for, in south Calcutta, many literary critics and poets lived within walking distance of each other. ‘Extraordinarily mature for seventeen years old,’ Binoy reported him to have said. He was now ready to introduce me to his ‘contacts’, clerks and accountants who led a shadow-life as editors, poets, and intellectuals. They were a small, stubborn band of people struggling to keep alive a sense of the urgency of modern poetry and its many movements in the midst of an enervating climate and a society with other preoccupations.
One morning, mastermoshai arrived at my uncle’s house. He seemed to be in possession of a secret. He told me to hurry up, for he was taking me to meet the editor of the Living City. It was a magazine locally published in Calcutta, and I recalled that I had once picked up a copy from a pavement stall in Park Street. I had found it interesting in a strange way, because its contributors were Bengalis I had never heard of, with the kind of common reassuring name you think must belong to learned people – Sukumar Mukherjee, Shibnarain Sen – all writing articles in quaint, textbookish English about Bengali literature and culture. It confirmed my suspicions that the most important work in literature was being done in the regional languages. In Bombay, for instance, I had sensed with some awe that Marathi poets had a highly-developed network of meeting-places and discussion groups organised around a series of roadside cafés and Irani restaurants. Here, in Calcutta, the contributors to Living City seemed more middle-class and academic, and yet oddly impressive, inhabitants of a world apart. The editor himself, R.D. Banerjee, had written an article on the Baishnab Padabali, the poets Chandidas and Bidyapati and their influence on Tagore, and the emotions associated with biraha, or separation from the loved one or God. In neat boxes by the side of certain pages, there were small poems written in a language that somehow seemed to fit in naturally with the style in which the essays had been written. It was a language that all the contributors to Living City had in common, so that one man, almost, might have composed the contents of the entire magazine. There were some pages that had the simplest form of advertisement – a message, or the name of a firm that could not possibly have any interest in literature – personal gestures of goodwill, old friendships, that sustained such a project.
That morning, Binoy and I were relaxing in the house, Binoy in kurta and pyjamas, and I in pyjamas and full-sleeved shirt. Dressed like this, both of us accompanied mastermoshai, in a taxi, to a house in one of the lanes near Southern Avenue, Binoy sitting at the back with mastermoshai, who was singing a Rabindrasangeet, and I, in the front, next to the taxi driver, with one elbow in the open window. In those days, when I came to Calcutta, Binoy took a personal interest in my literary career, and visited, with mastermoshai and me, the houses of several editors, a spectator who silently listened to our discussions and reported them later to my mother and his parents. He had been my closest companion in childhood; we had played and fought with each other. Now, at sixteen and seventeen, he and I were as tall as each other; we had reached our full adult height, though we were still boys. The taxi entered a lane with two and three-storeyed houses, trees and flowers in their tiny courtyards, their façades in stages of disrepair. It was the time of day when children go to school, and men to their offices, and a domestic calm in which these houses belonged entirely to women and servants was evident as we passed through the lane. To be part of this pre-midday hour was rare for a man. The taxi driver, on mastermoshai’s command, stopped at a small yellow building. Stone stairs of no particular colour, which we climbed up slowly because of the darkness, mastermoshai our leader, took us past the identical bottle-green doors of the two flats on every floor, till we reached the door which had R.D. BANERJEE in white letters upon a black plastic nameplate. Mastermoshai pressed a buzzer. The three of us stood in that small space that formed the landing at each flight of stairs and the common area outside the flats, a dark square box from which stairs radiated upward and downward. A balding man in spectacles, dressed in a cotton shirt, black trousers, and sandals, opened the door for us. It was Mr Banerjee himself; politely but tacitly he led us inside. The door, once opened, led to a long corridor that was also a verandah which formed a border to the flat; to its right, there were three rooms with their doors open, and a curtain hanging from each doorway. The verandah ended in a wall, and to its left, there was a rectangular space, and then, the verandah of the opposite flat, with the same three doors. The building thus seemed to enclose an empty rectangle, with the flats on its margins.
Mr Banerjee took us into the first room through a white curtain with printed flowers. It had a centre table, a small sofa against the wall, two armchairs facing each other, all in a faded green cloth upholstery, wooden shelves with glass panels on the left, with a few hardcovers upon them. Mr Banerjee switched on the fan. There was a window at the other end, with curtains that were smaller versions of the curtain at the doorway. Mr Banerjee sat on the chair at that end, Binoy on the sofa, mastermoshai next to him, and I on the other arm-chair. Mr Banerjee nodded at Binoy, and said to mastermoshai:
‘Is he the poet?’ Binoy shifted uncomfortably, possibly wondering, suddenly, what he was doing here. But, dark-complexioned, almost black, in kurta and pyjamas, large-eyed, he did look poetic.
‘No, no,’ said mastermoshai. ‘He is his uncle’s son. This is the boy whose poems I showed you.’ Mr Banerjee turned to look at me.
‘I see,’ he said. Unsmilingly, he told me, ‘I liked your poems.’
Magically, tea and biscuits on a plate arrived from nowhere. Our presence had set off a small domestic machinery in the flat. Conversation opened up, and mastermoshai told Mr Banerjee more about me, while Binoy sipped his tea and listened.
‘I noticed a mood of biraha in your poems,’ Mr Banerjee told me. ‘Have you ever read the Baishnab Padabali?’
‘No, I haven’t,’ I said a little hesitantly. ‘But I am interested. Could you tell me where I can buy a copy?’
‘He has trouble reading Bengali,’ explained mastermoshai, ‘because he grew up in Bombay. As for the Padabali, you should find it in College Street.’
‘I will publish your poems next month,’ said Mr Banerjee.
Delight made us all silent. We finished our tea, got up to leave, and mastermoshai thanked him profusely, while Binoy and I, as before, had merged into the background and assumed the status of bystanders. Mr Banerjee closed the door, and that was the last I saw of him.
On my next visit to Calcutta, I found that mastermoshai had widened his interests; he was thinking of freelancing as a copywriter, and relinquishing his job as private tutor. He had inserted a small message in the Classifieds column of The Statesman, advertising his skills and availability, but the message showed such a command of the idiomatic resources of English that it would have been unintelligible to most Bengali readers. One day, he came to me and gave me a piece of paper. It was for my father, who worked in a firm that had dealings with Britannia Biscuits. ‘Ask him to show it to them,’ he said with great pride and self-assurance. The piece of paper, which seemed blank at first glance, had its entire space filled with three large words written with a ball-point:
A few days later, he came up with another slogan for one of Britannia’s new creations, the orange-flavoured ‘Delite’, and this I liked very much for it spoke to me of his whole personality: ‘Your taste is our Delite.’ I handed it to my father, who liked it as well. But, once it reached the offices of Britannia Biscuits in Bombay, it was, I think, forgotten.
On my last visit before I left for England, I found that mastermoshai had already left his copywriting days behind him and moved on to new things. He had set up a shop with his servant, from which they sold cooking-oil to customers. ‘I’ve instructed Ganesh,’ he told my aunt, ‘to make his hand tremble a little while measuring out the oil.’ He added, in explanation, ‘These are hard times.’ On this occasion, I did not stay in my uncle’s house, but in the flat my father had bought many years ago, which now, at last, was furnished. It was the flat to which my parents would move after my father’s retirement. My mother told me not to waste my holidays and to make use of my time by taking Bengali lessons from mastermoshai. ‘After all, he is a learned man,’ she said. Thus, for the first time, mastermoshai came to our flat. It was a different world inside the flat, but he regarded our affluence and difference without envy; he was not embarrassed or diminished by it. He reminisced to me about a man he had once known, the son of a maharajah, who could no longer step out of his great mansion because he could not understand the world. We sat, in an air-conditioned room, at a study-table by a great window that looked out on trees and old, aristocratic houses. The book we began to read together was the slender Chhelebela, or Boyhood, by Tagore.
‘Are you enjoying it?’ he asked me at one point.
‘I like it very much.’
‘Of course,’ he informed me, ‘you cannot understand, beneath all its lightness, its spiritual rhythm.’
I protested then, a little offended. But I know now that he was right, that the music of a piece of writing becomes richer with the passing of time. Mastermoshai’s Chhelebela, with his life behind him, was not the same as my Chhelebela, at the age of seventeen. The Bengali lessons continued, interrupted by discussions in which we spoke of various things, including my most recent poetry, an inexhaustible theme, and the strangely refreshing absence of tragedy in Sanskrit drama. But we did not complete the book. Mastermoshai had a small disagreement with my mother, and then my uncle, a few childish, irrational outbursts, after which I myself became rather childishly cold with him. It was not a serious breach, and would have healed. I met him again, by chance, a few days later in my uncle’s house. I had put a record of Hindustani classical music on the gramophone, and, listening to it, was waving one arm passionately in the air, keeping time with the music. Unknown to me, mastermoshai came and stood behind me, waving his arms as well. When I saw Binoy smiling, I turned. Mastermoshai stopped immediately, and became completely serious. With adult restraint, we acknowledged each other, and he went down the stairs.
Soon after, I left for England. Sometimes, I would ask my mother on the phone: ‘How is Bishnu Prasad Chakrabarty?’ – for that was mastermoshai’s name. Information about him was scarce, however. It seemed that, after a series of sporadic and silly quarrels, he had left his tuitions, and taken up the cooking-oil business in earnest. When I came to Calcutta from England, I longed to make up with him, but no one knew where he was; I heard that he had moved into Ganesh’s house beyond the railway lines, where the nomadic poor – domestic servants, factory workers – lived in a different society with a different kind of life. Then, a few years later, my mother told me that he had died, leaving everything to Ganesh. I see now that the period in which I knew mastermoshai was a transitional one, when, after having lost his wife and children, having seen through life, he returned to his youthful enthusiasms – Baudelaire, Eliot – to temporarily regain his sanity. And then, for no good reason, he loosened his ties again.
Since that first meeting, much has changed in my life. Going to England blurred certain things and clarified others. I realised that a strange connection between this small, cold island and faraway Bengal had given rise to the small-town world of Calcutta, and even to mastermoshai; from a distance, I saw it gradually in perspective – a colonial small-town, with its trams and taxis, unknown to, and cut off from, the rest of the world, full of a love for the romance of literature that I have not found anywhere else, and that is somehow a vivid part of small-town life. As for Binoy, I hardly see him these days; I live, for most of the year, in another part of the world, while he has stayed on in the house in Calcutta. Not having done exceptionally well at college, he works in his father’s business, and has also joined, I hear, a political theatre troupe, and performs, occasionally, in street-plays. I saw him once on the stage, dressed in silk and costume jewellery as a medieval king, a turban on his head, his dark face made pale and floury with powder. Calcutta is his universe; like a dewdrop, it holds within it the light and colours of the entire world.