Turning Spaces Into Stories

Shyamal Bhattacharya and Tapan Bandyopadhyay

Shyamal Bhattacharya and Tapan Bandyopadhyay

Award-winning Bengali authors Tapan Bandyopadhyay and Shyamal Bhattacharya talk to each other about what goes into a writer’s body of work at a special Aakhar session

The lives of writers often make for tales as fascinating as their art. Many experiences translate into an artist’s body of work, while many develop their consciousness and conscience. To learn about the trajectory of the prolific Bengali writer and translator, Tapan Bandyopadhyay, whose novel Birbal won him the Sahitya Akademi award in 2022, Prabha Khaitan Foundation organised a session of Aakhar in association with Purba Paschim. On that memorable evening in Kolkata, Bandyopadhyay conversed with the Sahitya Akademi-winning Bengali author, Shyamal Bhattacharya, to walk the audience into the heart of the Sundarbans and Baduria, places which occupy a significant space in his oeuvre.

Soumitra Mitra, the Foundation’s Advisor for Bengali Language, Theatre and Film Programmes, introduced the author, and praised Goyenda Gargi Shomogro, one of his most celebrated creations. Bandyopadhyay remembered, “I grew up in a village called Baduria where even a library was not to be found 10 miles from my house. Literature and aliens were similar to the villagers. My first introduction to literature happened with Tagore’s Kishalay in Class III, and I felt I could also write. I wrote a quatrain in my maths copy once and thereafter, wrote a rhyme or two every day. When I read about Premendra Mitra winning the Sahitya Akademi, an award that I knew nothing about and yet sounded important to me, curiously enough, I also wanted to win it.”

Bandyopadhyay has been successful as both a poet and prose writer, but it is the latter that brought him critical acclaim. When asked what caused him to transition from being a poet to a short story writer and then a novelist, he elaborated, “The job of a civil servant took me to the interiors of rural Bengal for over a decade. I heard and experienced diverse stories that I felt I could not do justice to within the limited lines of poetry. Every person is a book to me. I kept unravelling the stories buried in people and giving them the shape of my stories and later, novels.” His job brought him face-to-face with many challenges and life-threatening situations which he believes only added to his courage and prudence.

“My first introduction to literature happened with Tagore’s Kishalay in Class 3, and I felt I could also write.”

In a jovial mood, Bandyopadhyay shared many anecdotes that went into his stories, like Rajyopaler Oshukh or Mukhyomontrir Upohaar, where satire is directed at people in power. He also spoke about his occasional friction with politicians and how he ironed out differences. He highlighted that his short stories till the 90s were saturated with the Sundarbans, after which he turned to novels. A lot of archival research in the National Library on the history of Gwalior and Indian classical music helped him craft Malabkaushik to perfection. His inquiry into how life was spent when monumental texts like the Vedas and Upanishads were written took the shape of another novel, Tatwamoshi.

Bandyopadhyay believes history did a disservice to Birbal by not recognising him as the chief adviser of Akbar. “Many popular stories about Birbal present him as nothing more than a jester. I read Akbarnama, Vincent A. Smith’s Akbar: The Great Mogul, Ishwari Prasad’s works, and a lot more to unearth the true Birbal, important and indispensable to Akbar. There were four Hindu navratnas in Akbar’s court: Birbal, Todar Mal, Tansen and Man Singh I. Who do you think influenced Akbar’s pro-Hindu decisions, like the abolition of Jizya or the translation of many Hindu mythological texts into Persian? It was all for Birbal, who made Akbar one of the greatest Mughals. I brought this Birbal to light in Birbal, which won the Sahitya Akademi.” A prolific writer and translator whose writing career spans many decades alongside a successful bureaucratic stint, Bandyopadhyay has significantly contributed to the glory of Bengali literature and continues to do so. While praising him, Bhattacharya mentioned that he learnt the “art of living” from the author, who lives close to the soil.

Aakhar Kolkata was supported by Shree Cement Limited as their CSR initiative in association with Purba Paschim and with the support of Ehsaas Women of Kolkata.