Nabarun Bhattacharya | Offence given, and taken7 min read . Updated: 16 Mar 2013, 12:05 AM IST
Congenital contrarian Nabarun Bhattacharya's run-in with the Bengal government is by no means the firstor the last
Prominent on his bookshelf, among titles by Steinbeck, Twain, Proust, Lorca and Lenin, is a printout of a cartoon that sent a professor of Kolkata’s Jadavpur University to jail last year. Oh that, grins poet and writer Nabarun Bhattacharya. The cartoon features two former Indian Railways ministers and All India Trinamool Congress party (TMC) supremo and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. “After all, she is now our official supplier of comic relief," he says. “We’ve never had a funnier government."
A minute into the interview, 64-year-old Bhattacharya has dived into the maelstrom of Bengal politics while also underlining his stature as an entrenched and fearless satirical voice against “power and its misuse".
Two significant developments had taken place a day earlier. Kangal Malsat, Suman Mukhopadhyay’s movie adaptation of Bhattacharya’s novel that was earlier refused a certificate by the local revising committee of the Central Board of Film Certification for its portrayal of contemporary Bengal politics, got clearance from Delhi’s Film Certification Appellate Tribunal. The film-maker agreed to the recommended cuts, while the tribunal dismissed some of the objections. The same day, the 13,000th copy of the novel, first published in 2003, came off the press, “a record of sorts in contemporary Bengali literature", says Saurav Mukhopadhyay at publisher Saptarshi Prakashan.
It’s ironical, though, that such a popular book should be deemed unfit for cinematic consumption. The crackdown on Kangal Malsat (The War Cry of Beggars), which will be released within the next few months, by local censors followed multiple instances of gagging of artistic and public opinion by the state government.
For an irrepressible political writer whose championing of the Kolkata street and marginalized urban milieu is often achieved through a relentless blend of satire, dark humour, cheeky language, anger, celebration and fantasy, conflicting with the left, right and centre of India’s political order comes naturally. “I dream of a democratic socialistic order beyond rigid Marxist theory," says Bhattacharya. “There, people will get enough to eat, their health and lives will be looked after and children educated. Till then, I’ll protest."
Delhi-based translator Arunava Sinha, who translated Herbert into English, says Bhattacharya “clearly offends anybody in power and abusing it". Sinha has translated 17 works of Bengali fiction into English but wants to retranslate Herbert (Sinha translated it as Harbart) in more creative ways. “Nabarun da’s writing goes beyond siding with the underdog," Sinha says. “He continuously challenges the reader’s status quo. He is the antibody with the perennial counterview."
On his part, Bhattacharya says it was “complete inspiration" from his father, the prominent playwright and film personality Bijon Bhattacharya, who spearheaded the leftist Indian People’s Theatre Association movement during the 1940s and authored the landmark Bengali play Nabanna, that initiated him into the Communist fold. Regarding his mother, the decorated writer Mahasweta Devi, he is unsparing.
Bhattacharya’s parents divorced when he was 11. He was brought up by his father. Mother and son rarely speak. Nevertheless, when Mahasweta Devi, who is known to be part of Mamata Banerjee’s culture clan, though she is occasionally critical, was recently admitted to Kolkata’s posh Belle Vue Clinic, they spoke over the phone. “Mamata (Banerjee) got her admitted for a regular check-up," Bhattacharya says. “Celebrities go to Belle Vue, people like us go to government hospitals. I don’t agree with—how do I say it—her opportunism. Anyone who has some work should keep away from power. There’s nothing to get from there. I haven’t been inspired by my mother’s writing either."
Bhattacharya’s Delhi-based son, Tathagata, is sure, however, that one of Mahasweta Devi’s best-known novels, Hajar Churashir Maa (later turned by Govind Nihalani into a Hindi film), was inspired by his father’s early Naxalite leanings (“I was a close sympathizer," says Bhattacharya) in the tumultuous 1970s in Kolkata. “Currently, my leanings lie with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, though I’m not a member or a blind follower," Bhattacharya says. “That party tries to practise what they preach and I’ve met a lot of honest people there. I have always been a leftist, but no further left than the heart."
A combination of leftism, emotion and artistic integrity is manifested in Bhattacharya’s adolescent memories of the Indian cinema legend Ritwik Ghatak, a family member and his father’s companion. He remembers being with Ghatak, a known leftist, during Subarnarekha’s outdoor shoot in the 1960s and returning with indelible impressions of “artistic passion and the will to work and survive all odds" and “the intense agony of a man who can’t continue shooting for lack of film raw stock".
In the early 1990s, when Bhattacharya was writing Herbert, which won the state’s Bankim Puraskar in 1996—subsequently returned in protest against the Nandigram and Singur incidents which were marked by contentious land acquisitions for industry and state-sponsored violence—and the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1997, Tathagata witnessed the anguish of creation. “My father would sometimes cry while writing," says Tathagata. Bhattacharya was then grappling with the loss of his job at the Soviet Information Service news agency in Kolkata following the Soviet Union’s disintegration, which he considers “the biggest tragedy of humanity, for it ended humanity’s biggest dream". Bhattacharya’s wife Pranati’s job as a professor of political science saw the family through.
Bhattacharya first made his mark as a poet and short story writer. Herbert, with its story of a tragicomic Kolkata character who claims to communicate with the dead in a city of death, decay and debauchery, marked a “radical shift" in Bengali literature. “Bengali literature has remained on one side, Nabarun Bhattacharya at the other," says Saurav. He introduced the street’s everyday crudity and idiom, and hand-held readers through sickening hospital wards, chaotic crematoriums, buzzing country liquor holes, corrupt government chambers and scheming political party offices. It is also a richly metaphorical world of termites, gnats, cockroaches, talking crows and the three flying Fyatarus— Madan, their brooding leader, DS, named after the Director’s Special whisky, and the poet Purandar Bhat (who shares his birth year, 1948, with Bhattacharya), the three giving wings to the inherent human dream to fly, but coalescing over industrial alcohol and anarchy: Harry Potters for the politically conscious adult generation, Saurav says.
“It’s notable that Bhattacharya created his readership without patronage from any media house or corporate entity, unlike most others," Saurav adds. “He has shunned media limelight, doesn’t attend literary meets, ‘Best among Bengalis’ events and doesn’t write for Puja literary compilations."
Bhattacharya’s freethinking shows in Kangal Malsat. He is irreverent towards Bengal’s largest media house and Bengalis in general (“an entire race is heading towards Nimtala [a crematorium], cellphone held in a tight grip"). He is critical of the city: “The polluted air lends to everything a sublime maya, and any gust of wind throws up large and small flying polybags like white doves of peace."
Written during the state’s Communist regime, Bhattacharya’s viewpoint is evident in a fantastical encounter between comrade Acharya and comrade Stalin, when the latter finds life within a framed photograph. Comrade Stalin challenges Acharya to a bout of vodka drinking before rebuking him: “You didn’t do revolution, you did votes", and Comrade Stalin proceeds to list the people he got killed in the past.
Bhattacharya’s keen political understanding is apparent from his foreseeing the rise of the TMC, which won a single seat in the 2004 Lok Sabha election, in Kangal Malsat, which was published in 2003. In a Purandar Bhat quatrain, the TMC’s advent is prophesied through the undergrowth’s furtive spread below CPM-marked flowers in a garden. “I formed my opinion after hearing common people," Bhattacharya says. He mentions two emotion-intensive places, hospitals and crematoriums, as his favourite places to observe human reactions to tragedy and loss.
Such interactions often provoke his writing. In his short story Amar Kono Bhoy Nei Toh? (I Have Nothing to Fear, Right?)—the fearful being a recurrent theme in his writing as representative of the working man’s emotional state— a ruffian playfully shoots a bumbling householder. The story transpired from a real-life incident in his locality where a young footballer got killed after a friend flaunted a pistol procured from a promoter.
“That episode is quite similar to the Garden Reach incident where a police officer was killed," Bhattacharya says. On 12 February, during a fight between political parties over a college election, a policeman was shot by a hooligan who was allegedly patronized by the ruling party, after reportedly receiving the weapon from his political mentor.
This is how life leaps out of his text and the text imbibes life: a mutual give and take that has given Bhattacharya the stature of a trusted chronicler of contemporary Kolkata, a voice of dissonance in the chorus of elitist progress and a strident humane tenor in the “carnivalesque" opera of the subaltern.
Having suffered a cerebral stroke, Bhattacharya now carries himself slowly, says Pranati. But occasionally his voice and his stare carry a cold spark. The Fyatarus are watching everything," he warns. “A day will come when they’ll strike back." It remains unasked if he means the Fyatarus in real life or in his writing.