Gurudas Bhattacharya, Vachaspati, the seniormost teacher of Sanskrit at Khulna’s Jagattarini School, had an accident during Bengali literature for Class Nine.
‘Amaar projagawn amaar cheye tahare bawro kori mane…’ The pundit stumbled on the sentence. Cheye? Did that refer to the Bengali word for glance? Or for desire? After some thought, he explained the sentence as, ‘The King says his subjects want him, they desire his sanctuary, but they respect the king of Kaushal more. Grammar has been distorted a little here.’
The boys on the first bench exchanged glances. Then one of them stood up to say, ‘It’s fine, sir. The word “cheye” in this case is used for comparison, in the sense of “than”. My subjects consider him more noble than me. See, it says a little later, “Are you so bold as to imagine you can be more pious than me?’
‘If only I were an Arab bedouin rather than this,’ the boy next to him recited.
Gurudas did not respond. Accepting the correction made by his students, he continued teaching the poem. The bell rang.
It was the last period. Collecting their umbrellas and books, the other teachers left for their homes, while Gurudas made his way to the school library. The library was nothing but three cupboards full of books in one corner of the staff room, most of them textbooks obtained as free samples. Among the more valuable volumes were several hardbound sets of the Bengali literary magazine “Probashi”, a Philips atlas of twenty years’ voltage, a Chambers Dictionary, and three Bengali and English-to-Bengali dictionaries used by students. Clearing his throat, Gurudas said, ‘Can you unlock this cupboard, Nabakeshto?’
Not even the servants at school paid much attention to the Sanskrit teacher. And Nabakeshto donned the mantle of bearer, doorman and gardener single-handedly. ‘The library is closed, sir,’ he answered with a touch of insolence.
‘Never mind, just unlock it. I need some books.’
‘But I have to leave for Rasoolpur rightaway – my daughter’s in-laws have invited us…’
‘That’s all right, you can go. Leave the keys with me.’
‘All right then. Don’t forget to give them back to me before eleven tomorrow. You know how strict the new headmaster is. And lock the door of the room before you go… here’s the padlock, see?’
Unlocking the cupboard, Gurudas planted himself in front of it; with a glance at his back, Nabakeshto gathered his bundle, wrapped in a gamchha, from its place beneath the table – he was taking a bunch of grapefruits from the tree in the school yard as gifts for his son-in-law.
No one was allowed to take the dictionaries home; Gurudas spent a good deal of time leafing through the two Bengali dictionaries. The light grew dim, the silence of a provincial evening thickened inside the room. He forgot to sit down, forgot his hunger, his internal senses seemed to soak up the rows of letters. Today’s incident had wounded him – he had not been able to capture the meaning of a word which millions of adults and children used every single day without a thought. How could he – he was a teacher of Sanskrit. He had learnt Sanskrit, but not Bengali. But he was a Bengali – that was the language he spoke. He seemed to realise for the first time that the Bengali language was not Sanskrit, not even a corrupt form – it was a complete, living, changing, evolving, independent language, the spoken language of seventy million people, their mother-tongue. ‘A living language, the mother-tongue’ – he repeated the words in his head several times. But prowess in one’s mother-tongue was not automatic, it needed nurture.
Gurudas noticed that none of the dictionaries included the word he had tripped over that morning. He was reminded of other words used in similar fashion – “thekey”, the Bengali word used for “from” or “since”, or “dyakha”, used for “seeing” or “meeting” or “looking after”. This was how the Bengali language perfumed the task of the Sanskrit verb-ending. None of this was in the dictionary. There were mistakes – mistaken explanations, even mistaken spelling. How were the students to learn? And I – how am I to learn?
It was late evening by the time Gurudas returned home. His wife Harimohini asked, ‘So late?’ Gurudas did not answer. He ate his dinner in silence. ‘Are you ill? You aren’t eating.’ ‘I am not ill.’ He went to bed early that night.
Jagattarini School began at eleven in the morning, and the district school, at ten-thirty. Gurudas went to the district school around a quarter past eleven the next morning, spending half an hour in the library before breathlessly entering his own class in the nick of time. It was Saturday the next day – from the school he went to the only college in Khulna. He had a nodding acquaintance with the Sanskrit teacher there (here, too, it was he who taught Bengali). They conversed for some time, and he flipped through three or four books in the library – but his restlessness did not leave him.
No, he had not found it – he had not found what he was looking for, anywhere. Could there not be a complete Bengali dictionary, which had room for every single word, both Sanskrit and vernacular, in the language, which included every combination, every application, every colloquial usage, which would enable the Bengali language to be learnt, its nature to be understood, its unique creative spirit to be appreciated? The college professor had said there was not a single such book. There were a few good ones among those he examined, but in a workmanlike way – where was the dictionary that one could use for real scholarship?
The biggest bookshop in town was Victoria Library. In the evening Gurudas asked for a look at a major Bengali dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary. Having leafed through them for a few minutes, he said softly, ‘There’s something I want to discuss, Rebati-babu.’
In a small town, everyone knew everyone else. The owner looked at Gurudas over the rims of his glasses.
‘It’s Saturday – may I take these two books home? I’ll return them to you first thing Monday morning.’
‘Take them home?’
‘I’ll handle them very carefully – won’t soil them, won’t crease them – I’ll look after them. I need them urgently, you see.’
‘Someone’s already ordered those books, Panditmashai.’
‘I see.’ Gurudas’s fair, lean face reddened. A little later he said, ‘Then I’d better buy them.’ He had to wage a terrible war against himself, but… he had spoken, he couldn’t take his words back now.’
‘Pack these books for Panditmashai…’ Rebati-babu made no further reference to the books having been ordered.
‘But I can only pay next month.’
‘Hmm…’ Gurudas sent up a silent prayer, ‘Let him not agree, o lord.’ But Rebati-babu’s mouth softened.
‘Very well. But on the first of the month, don’t forget. We run a very small business, you know… sign here, please.’
He had got them at a discount by virtue of being a teacher. Thirteen rupees and fourteen annas – nearly a third of his salary.
Gurudas browsed through the two books late into that night by the glow of a lantern. His grasp of English was poor, but he had no difficulty in realising the difference in the presentation of the two books. And yet this was just a condensed version, he had heard that Oxford had a giant dictionary too.
Before going to sleep he mused over Panini, considered the sheer extent of the Sanskrit dictionary “Shabdakalpadruma”, and recollected Vidyasagar. An extraordinary talent for grammar, unbeatable enthusiasm for analysis, bottomless vocabulary. He used to have them all. What happened to them?
Harimohini had planted flowers in a fenced-in corner of the small yard. She was watering them with her daughter on Sunday morning when Gurudas came up to them, smiling.
‘Shibani, go check if Nidhu-r ma has brought the milk.’
‘Later. Listen to me first.’
Harimohini paused and looked at him.
‘I’m about to start something new.’
A ray of hope flashed across Harimohini’s face. Had the match for Shibani been finalised with the Chatterjees of Nimtala then? Their elder daughter Bhabani had been married into a high-born family – this was the other daughter. She had turned fifteen, if she didn’t get married now, then when?
‘Have they sent word?’
‘The Nimtala Chatterjees.’
‘No, that’s not it. I am going to write a dictionary of the Bengali language. I made up my mind last night.’
There was no flicker of expression on Harimohini’s face.
‘You know what a dictionary is, don’t you? A collection of words. The meaning of words in the Bengali language, similar words, usage of words, and so on. There isn’t a book like this at the moment.’
‘Not a single one? You’re going to write it?’ Harimohini felt a burst of pride. ‘Will it say anything about gods and goddesses?’
Yes, everything. Unknown to Gurudas, a smile spread across his face. He had fallen asleep last night as soon as he had come to this decision – a deep sleep. And when he awoke this morning, he discovered his mind was calm, his heart, cheerful, and his body, healed and rested, while support for his endeavour radiated from the branching rays of the sun in the sky. As though nature had been waiting these last few days only for his resolve to do this: as soon as he accepted this, satisfaction spread across the heavens, and the movements in his body acquired an easy rhythm. Gods and goddesses – of course he would have to include then. But all the gods? All their names? He would have to determine which of them belonged to an encyclopaedia and which, to a dictionary. Which of the Sanskrit words could be considered Bengali? What to do with Brajabuli? What were the indications that a word was part of the Bengali language? Would he have to add words which were not in circulation but might be required? There was so much to think about. So much to think – but even Harimohini’s flowering plants were urging him to start at once.
Gurudas had been to Puri once as a student, he was reminded now of his visit. He could see just such an ocean stretching ahead of him – a succession of waves, hollows, whirpools, effort… the horizon in the distance. On this ocean his raft would have to float, this was the sea he would have to cross. For a moment Gurudas felt his skin prickle.
After lunch he brought the subject up again with his wife.
‘I was thinking of the dictionary.’
‘The thing is, I need some material. Books and things.’
‘Very expensive books. I was thinking, Chakrabroty-mashai had made an offer for that acre of land back home…’
‘You’ll sell it?’ A shadow fell across Harimohini’s face. ‘We have nothing else, and the girl’s growing up too.’
‘We can survive on what we have.’ Gurudas could not inject too much confidence in this assertion, so he tried to compensate with a soft smile. ‘That is to say, I will survive, and once your son’s grown up you’ll have nothing to worry about.’
‘The things you say! I think only about myself all the time, don’t I? But I shan’t let Nobu be a teacher like you. You know Netai, my nephew? He’s passed his Matriculation examination and joined the Railways. Sixty rupees a month already – and extra earnings on top of that.’
Gurudas did not approve of the final statement, but swallowing his criticism, he returned to the original subject.
‘Just the Railways? Nobu might even become a deputy magistrate like my brother,’ said Gurudas, throwing a sidelong look at his wife. It was a calculated ploy – he was fully aware of Harimohini’s reverence for his stepbrother’s status as a deputy magistrate.
‘Do you suppose I could ever be so lucky? But then, everything is possible if the gods smile on us, isn’t that right? That reminds me, I’d sent you sweest after Lakshmi-puja the other day, but Shibani said you didn’t have them.’
‘I touched my forehead with them – that’s better than eating them. Listen, I’m giving the land to Chakraborty-mashai then, all right?’
‘Giving it? We hardly have anything anyway – and there’s not only the girl who has to be married off but also the boy whom we must leave something to.’
‘Everything will be done. But I cannot turn back now.’
‘Cannot turn back – what do you mean?’
‘Wealth is by nature temporary, but…’ The pundit groped for the right word, and then turned helplessly to emotional appeal. ‘I have made up my mind – are you going to stop me now?’
The land they owned was in Nandigram, about an hour away by steamer. Gurudas paid a visit during the Janmashtami holidays. A house, fruit-bearing trees, a small pond, some farmland. Some? It was about seventy acres in his grandfather’s time. After being divided up, about eight acres had come to Gurudas. He had had to sell nearly two acres for his elder daughter’s wedding, and now another acre. Never mind, at least he was getting a hundred and fifty rupees. Rummaging through the books at home, he even found the old Sanskrit dictionary printed in Bombay – it had belonged to his father – and, how fortunate, the Sanskrit grammar that he had borrowed from a schoolmate and forgotten to return. The first thing he did on returning to Khulna was to buy two reams of the cheapest paper, which Shibani laced into a notebook.
On the first day of the Puja holidays at school, Gurudas travelled to Calcutta, where he had to put up for three days at a boarding house in Sealdah. Two more Bengali dictionaries, Suniti Chatterjee’s book on linguistics, an ancient (but excellent) Sanskrit-to-Bengali dictionary found after scouring the pavements of College Street and Chitpur, a Bengali grammar written by an Englishman, Tekchand and Hutom Pyancha published by Basumati, Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Mahabharata published by Hitabadi. He didn’t dare ignore Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Theory of Words” when it caught his eye – poets were the creators of language, might as well find out what he had to say. All this accounted for nearly fifty rupees. Then there were the new clothes for Durga Puja, a pair of shankhas each for Harimohini and Bhabani, a dhoti for his son-in-law, a pair of rubber slippers for Nobu costing a rupee and thirteen annas. He had to spend eight annas on his way back on a porter to carry all the books – that really pinched.
They had a wonderful time back home that year during the Durga Puja. Harimohini stayed back with the children, while Gurudas returned to Khulna the day after Lakshmi Puja. He cooked his own meals, and read all day. He found the English difficult, but managed to make sense of it, and it grew easier the more he read. Drawing one of the notebooks made by Shibani to himself on the day before Kali Puja, he wrote the first letter of the Bengali alphabet, ‘Aw’ in a large hand. Fifty words were written that day. The school opened three days later, the family returned, and his leisure hours shrank.
Gurudas set himself a routine. He woke up at five in the morning to write for two hours, and then drank his share of milk, went out on private tuition, bought the day’s provisions, and returned. This gave him a little time before his bath. He had to take private classes in the evening too – the exams were approaching – but he didn’t go to bed until he had put in a couple of hours of writing. Gurudas was making smooth progress.
Winter came. There was no light before six in the morning, and this was when the pressure of checking annual exam papers intensified. But the Christmas holidays were approaching.
He had to visit Calcutta again during the Christmas vacation. The subject was like Draupadi’s sari – unfolding constantly, an unending mystery, one whose depths you kept sinking into. How would he prove equal to this task – he, a mere Gurudas Bhattacharya, a minor Sanskrit scholar? He did not know his way on this road, had no clear idea of where he would find the bricks and cement needed to build this structure. In Calcutta he laid siege to the Imperial Library: the days passed navigating his way through the dense jungle of comparative linguistics. Many of the books were written in German, with an abundance of Greek letters and a thick growth of Latin, Gothic and Persian references, as though the immense vegetation of the Aryan languages had stretched up to the sky, spreading its branches far and wide. Sanskrit alone had never given him this feeling of kinship with the West, with the entire world. For the first time he set eyes on the Monier Williams Sanskrit dictionary, he discovered Skeat’s etymological dictionary too. Ten days passed cramming his notebooks with jottings.
When he was about to set off for Calcutta again during the summer holidays, Harimohini could not keep herself from objecting mildly.
‘Why must you go to Calcutta again?’
‘Do you need me here?’
‘I was thinking of the expenses. The boarding house costs money too.’
Gurudas had thought about this as well. The examination season was in the past, and not many studied Sanskrit these days, he had no private tuitions. Thanks to a supply of food from the land back home they managed to survive on forty-five rupees – but barely. They could afford coarse rice and dal and their clothes – anything more was virtually impossible. But… he simply had to go.’
‘Doesn’t your mother’s brother live in Calcutta?’ said Harimohini. ‘You could always…’
‘Of course not, how can I stay a month at someone else’s house? And he’s only my mother’s cousin – I haven’t met him in years… it’s impossible. But I’ll manage – don’t worry.’
‘It’s all very well for you to say that, but I spend sleepless nights.’
‘Have you decided that Shibani will remain a spinster?’
That was true. He had to accept that his daughter was showing signs of womanhood. It was time for her to be married. But… how?
‘Why so anxious? She’s not even fifteen yet. Many people don’t even think of marriage till eighteen these days.’
‘You of all people are saying this? Your family the Brahmin pundits of Nandigram didn’t allow their daughters to pass the age of ten.’
‘Why shouldn’t I? Didn’t Rammohan Roy speak up against idol-worship? Didn’t Vidyasagar introduce widow-remarriage? They were Brahmin pundits too.’
‘Those who get their daughters married at eighteen also give them the chance to go to school and college, all right? They don’t let them rot at home and turn into liabilities. Do you have it in you?’
Gurudas’s lean, fair face grew pale. She was right. He had no response. He must try to arrange a match.
From the matchmaker he learnt that Rameshwar Banerjee of Hatkhola in Calcutta was looking for a bride for his third son. Rameshwar had been a professor at Sanskrit College during the single year that Gurudas had read there. He decided to plead with Rameswar in Calcutta to provide a safe passage for his daughter.
In Calcutta Gurudas rented a ‘seat’ in the cheapest room in a boarding-house he was familiar with. His meals were at a ‘pice hotel’ (which he had discovered on his previous visit; for four paise you could eat so much that you didn’t need a second meal). His days were spent at the Imperial Library, at the university library, wandering among second-hand bookshops, and seeking audiences with renowned professors. He had sensed a new requirement: instructions, advice, discussions – he had brought along all the pages in his notebook, in case anyone had any constructive comments to offer. It wasn’t easy to meet professors – some had gone to Darjeeling, others were busy. Only two deigned to meet him. Leafing through the notebooks apprehensively, both of them said, ‘Excellent, it’s coming along very well, you must complete it.’ When he enquired whether a detailed discussion was possible, he learnt that both were engaged as chief examiner for the B.A. exams, and did not have the leisure even to die at present.
One day he overheard a young man at a book shop on College Street. The buyer was looking for a book on the history of Bengali literature; turning over the pages of two or three, what he uttered was clearly weighed down with nausea. ‘Dead! All dead! Rotting and ingested with worms which this swarm of professors is picking out to eat. They collapse when they see living literature. Rabindranath was born in vain.’ The young man disappeared, his sandals flapping.
Chuckling, the shopkeeper said, ‘Subrata Sen speaks as forcefully as he writes.’
‘Who was that?’ Gurudas stepped forward. ‘What did you say his name is?’
‘Subrata Sen. You haven’t read him? Very powerful.’
At the boarding house he normally drank a large glass of water and went to bed – his exhaustion taking him beyond the hot weather, the stench, and his hunger in an instant. But sleep eluded him that night, the young man’s statement ringing in his ears constantly. And you, Gurudas Bhattacharya, engaged in composing a dictionary of the Bengali language – what do you know of Bengali literature? Ishwar Gupta, Bankim, Michael – and that was it. The young man had named Rabindranath – some people said he had injected new life into the Bengali language, but you know nothing about him, you haven’t read him at all. And these new writers – take Subrata Sen, for example – language lived through transformation in every era. It would die if it were to lose this power. And if a dictionary could not provide a portrait of this evolution, what use was it?
He had to think of the whole thing afresh. A dictionary was not a compendium of explanations for students, not a list or collection, not an immovable, static, ponderous object. Its essence lay in the flow, in movement, in showing the path to the future – to move ahead it had to gather sustenance from the creative work that writers were engaged in constantly. It would have to be replete with hints, allusions, advice, even imagination – just like a flowing waterfall glinting under the light. He would have to read literature – living works, current, changing literature – all that was being written, read, said, heard in the Bengali language – all these were his ingredients.
He came back home bathed in a new glow. Within five minutes of his return Harimohini asked, ‘Did you meet Rameshwar Banerjee?’
‘What did he say?’
‘In a minute.’ Gurudas sat down on a mat, leaning back against a post. ‘They have many demands. They’re well-off, you see.’
‘Who’ll marry your daughter on the strength of her appearance alone?’
‘A thousand rupees in cash. Twenty-five bhori gold. All expenses. Provided they like the girl. But… can we afford all this? I’d better make some more enquiries…’
Sighing, Harimohini went away. Evening fell.
This time Rameshwar had brought a ream of fool’s-cap paper from Calcutta. It was cheaper there, and available at even lower prices if bought by the ream. He had nearly exhausted his older notebooks. He had to scribble copiously – scratch out bits, make changes, there was new information every day. And yet he wasn’t even done with the first letter, ‘Aw’.
Gurudas got down to work calmly. Some of it involved reading. He had avoided reading the newspapers all this time, but now he had to scan a couple of Bengali dailies every evening at the public library. And he left no Bengali book he could get hold of untouched. Happening to read Rabindranath’s “Ghare Baire”, he was astounded. Could the Bengali language actually be this way? This was not Hutoom, this was Kalidasa. Not even Kalidasa, something else altogether.
His notebook and pencil were always in his pocket. He took voluminous notes. Most of them would not prove useful, but who could predict what would?
The Bengalis’ forms of self-expression became the subject of his discoveries. He listened closely when his wife, son or daughter spoke; with so much interest that he often did not grasp the content, and forgot to answer. What he wanted to know was not what they were saying but how they were saying it. When the younger students raised an uproar during the lunch-break at school, he lurked unobserved behind them. At the market he kept his ears peeled for rural dialects. When he went home on holidays, he sought out Muslim peasants and made unnecessary conversation with them – they had a special way of speaking.
And he had to go to Calcutta during the longer vacations. He learnt the Greek alphabet, took help from a priest at St Xavier’s School to understand the rules of Latin grammar, even had to visit madrases for Arabic and Persian. Hardly any books were available in the provinces – for this too he had to visit Calcutta.
How did he afford all this. Cheap boarding houses and pice hotels, but still? Gurudas had made arrangements, getting rid of another acre of land, this time without telling his wife. He didn’t know anyone in Calcutta particularly well, feeling beleaguered if he had to speak in English. Nor did his soiled clothes evoke respect from anyone. He had to discover everything he needed all by himself, with the help of that eternal quality, effort, the capital that god endowed every human being with. Effort, endeavour, waiting, patience. It took him four hours to do an hour’s work – he was lighting rows of fireflies and pushing through the darkness. But there were lights at every street-corner – like signals for trains in the blackness of night.
Summer holidays once more, the monsoon once more. The rains were torrential that year. Earthworms burst through the kitchen floor in July. Leech in the front yard. Snakes here and there. On some nights seater streamed through gaps in the tin roof – having found dry spots for the children to sleep, the parents stayed up all night. After seven days of incessant rain, Gurudas opened his safe one day to get the shock of his life. Instead of his best books, what he saw were millions of termites wriggling about. Fifty pages of Suniti Chatterjee’s book were missing, the third volume of the Mahabharata was in shreds, the Sanskrit dictionary from this father’s time crumbled in his hands when he picked it up. The day passed battling the termites – he poured in four annas worth of kerosene.
Immediately after this accident a ray of hope emerged; Shibani’s marriage suddenly seemed a likelihood. The groom was from Barishal, recently posted here at the Khulna steamer station. The groom’s family approved of the bride, and made no demand for dowry – only the cost of the wedding, and shankha and sindoor for the bride. This was no cause for concern – Harimohini still had some ornaments.
The wedding would not take place before March, but Bhabani was overcome with joy when she heard. At long last she would be able to visit her mother. She lived in a large family, surrounded by her in-laws, at Madaripur – she didn’t even have the chance to visit her own family during Durga Puja.
Shibani ran up a fever after the rains. When the fever didn’t go down even after a week, Gurudas sent for the kaviraj. He prescribed plenty of red and black pills – but to no avail.
On the twenty-first day the official assistant surgeon turned up. His fees were four rupees, and he stomped about in boots. Typhoid, he said after examining the patient. Give her nothing but glucose. Pour water over her head morning and evening. Here are the medicines. Note down the temperature at four-hour intervals. Inform me after three days.
The medicines were bought with borrowed money. The doctor came once a week – paying his fees was a near-impossible task. Milk and fish were stopped; Harimohini’s deity was given a quarter of her regular rations.
Shibani lost weight, the fat disappeared from her cheeks, her discoloured teeth grew bigger and uglier. Then came the day when her hair had to be cut on the doctor’s orders. Her scalp needed water, the more the better. Harimohan poured water over her daughter’s head every hour, but Shibani was delirious.
When she died, her limbs had withered away to resemble sticks, her breast was like a seven-year-old boy’s chest. And this same girl was sixteen, healthy, full of grace. The ornaments put aside to pay for the wedding were used to clear the debt to the doctor.
Gurudas returned home at ten at night after the cremation. It was the end of February, winter was on its way out. He felt rather cold – wrapping a shawl around himself, he sat down next to his wife, who was slumped on the floor. The night passed in the same position.
A long night, but the sun rose finally. Harimohini had fallen asleep, while Nobu was curled on the floor in cold. Covering his son with the shawl, Gurudas carefully slipped a pillow beneath Harimohini’s head. Then he want out, spread a mat and sat down with his notebook. This last one had also been made by Shibani. For a moment, all the letters blurred. Wiping his eyes on the end of his dhoti, he set down more letters next to the blurred ones.
Five more years passed, the dictionary was in its seventh year. He was done with twenty-four letters, up to ‘Thaw’.
The words no longer flowed. What had started as an extraordinary, thrilling joy had turned into work now. Work, duty, responsibility, compulsion. The madness of discovery was gone, the excitement of gathering material had dissipated. He had an enormous quantity of information at his disposal now, the roads were familiar. It was time to work, it was time for nothing but work. Daily work, weekly work, monthly, annual, continuous. No likes, no dislikes, no reluctance either. This was an immaculate world, where the individual’s specialities were dead
That year saw the fruition of a long drawn-out effort of Jagattarini School’s – the government finally approved grants. Teachers’ salaries were increased; Gurudas’s monthly earning leapt to fifty-five rupees – it could even get to seventy or seventy-five eventually. In that same year Nobu, or Nabendu, vaulted over the hurdle of the Matriculation examination. Not just that, he got a job almost immediately. A job with the Railways, as his mother had hoped.
A few months later there was tragic news: Bhabani had become a widow. And within two months she appeared in her father’s yard with close-cropped hair, dressed in a widow’s garb and holding three children by the hand. Her late husband’s parents was no longer willing to shoulder the burden of their daughter-in-law, without whom they couldn’t survive a moment once. ‘They are not as well-off as before, my brothers-in-law have several children, and he didn’t leave anything for us, Baba.’
Her father said, ‘Don’t worry. Nobu has a job now. I’ll look after all of you.’
Gurudas went to Calcutta during the summer holidays that year – after a gap of two years. He couldn’t postpone things anymore, it was time to find a publisher.
In his canvas shoes, holding a dusty umbrella, he scoured the summer pavements from Goldighi to Hedua with his manuscript stuffed into a tin trunk. Finally he came across Bharat Press in a lane off Sukia Street. They published old Sanskrit and Bengali books, and were inclined towards dictionaries. But the proprietor Bipin-babu said, ‘We cannot judge how good your dictionary is. If you can get a recommendation from someone worthwhile, we’ll think about it.’
‘Such as? Whose…’ Gurudas was too embarrassed to utter the word recommendation.
Bipin-babu mentioned three or four people. The very first one was that of the Vice-Chancellor of the University.
Gurudas arrived at this gentleman’s house the next day. About a dozen people were waiting in a small room. As the day progressed, a crowd of people waiting for an audience filled the open space in front of the house. Dhotis, western suits, Madrasis, Punjabis, even saffron. Some paced up and down, some leaned against the railing, some peeped over the swing door before ducking behind it. Young men, old men, women, helpless faces, grave expressions – but all of them similarly afflicted by the need for solicitation. The clacking of typewriters, the ringing of telephones, the bustle of orderlies and clerks – it was impossible to tell who had got an audience and who was waiting in despair. From seven the clock moved on to eleven – there was no hope of a meeting today.
Gurudas slipped while getting off the tram on the way back, hurting himself. Putting tincture of iodine on his bruises, he rested on a plank in the boarding house all day. When he awoke the next morning, his hips were aching. But still he got into the second-class coach of the tram with his trunk.
No luck that day either – four hours passed, alternately sitting and standing. Four successive days went by this way.
On the fifth day he arrived even earlier, in case he could get in before anyone else. He discovered only two people already there. A man of dignified appearance walking across the yard stopped suddenly on seeing him.
‘What’s the matter? Here again?’
‘I had to come again, because…’
‘You haven’t met him yet? Haven’t I been seeing you every day? Well, what do you need?’
‘I have composed a dictionary of Bengali. It’s about this dictionary…’
‘Oh, a dictionary? Of Bengali?’ The man surveyed Gurudas from head to toe, not omitting his tin trunk. ‘You’ve actually brought your manuscript?’
‘Just… in case he wants a look… if he has the time.’
‘Very well, sit down. Go straight in as soon as he arrives. Through this door here – there’s nothing to be afraid of.’
He really did get an audience, along with a slip of paper with the words, ‘I endorse this book for publication’ along with a signature.
Five hundred copies of each of several slim volumes would be published, each costing one rupee. The books would not be bound. Half of whatever was left over after paying for costs would go to the author, but if expenses were not recovered within a year, the writer would recompense the publisher.
These were the terms of the contract. Bipin-babu kept the manuscripts for the first four letters, ‘Aw’ through ‘Dirgho-ee’, and Gurudas received the proofs within a week of returning to Khulna.
Six volumes were published in a year; the vowels were done. But Bipin-babu welcomed him sombrely the next summer. ‘The books aren’t selling at all. There they are – see for yourself. An entire dictionary is available at ten rupees, who’s going to pay six for just the vowels? And who cares for so many details? I couldn’t cover my costs, but I know you cannot recompense me. I can absorb this loss, but if you want to publish further you’ll have to pay half the costs. If the books sell, I’ll recover my costs first, plus thirty per cent commission. The rest will be yours.’
‘Half the costs? How much?’
‘It takes between two hundred and two-fifty to print each volume. You’ll get bills.’
Gurudas left another six volumes of his manuscript with the printer. With each volume being printed, he sold half an acre of land. Eventually nothing but the homestead was left, and then that was sold too.
By then ten more years had passed. Gurudas was almost through with ‘Baw’; all the letters up to ‘Dontyo-naw’ had been published. Meanwhile his hair had greyed, he wore thick lenses in nickel-framed glasses – but despite the spectacles everything seemed blurred at night. Harimohini was suffering from arthritis, she couldn’t do the household tasks anymore. The entire family was under the care of the lean, indefatigable Bhabani. She paid a little extra attention to her father, offering him whatever she could – a little milk or fruit, or some juice. When she had a few moments to spare, she leafed through his dictionary. Gurudas had taught her, the first child of his youth, a little Sanskrit and Bengali. She knew her grammar, and had even picked up proof-reading skills. There were times – perhaps on the morning of a holiday – when Gurudas sat outside the house, writing, while Bhabani sat at his side, turning over the pages of books, not talking. They never spoke – but they were happy, both of them.
Nabendu now had a salary of seventy-five rupees. He lived in Calcutta, his job was to check tickets on trains leaving from Sealdah Station. His days passed travelling on trains, but he rushed home whenever he could, and he handed over a decent sum of money to Gurudas every month. It was thanks to him that they survived even with three growing children. Gurudas could afford to go Calcutta from time to time, and Harimohini did not come to know that they didn’t own any land anymore, that they actually had to buy all their provisions now.
Harimohini busied herself in finding a match for her twenty-seven-year-old son. Nabendu wasn’t willing, he said he was trying to get the post of station-master – it would be better to marry after he had settled down. Actually, it was the state of the family that had made him reluctant to add to his financial burden. But Harimohini insisted, and he was married in May.
Along with new quilts and sheets, a painted box of toiletries, and the fragrance of vaseline and scent, the new bride also brought in a wave of joy into the house. A beauteous girl of fifteen. A little pain was unavoidable too; reminded of Shibani, Harimohini wiped her eyes covertly.
Nine months after his wedding, Nabendu slipped while trying to climb into a moving train and fell on the tracks. By the time he was pulled out his heart was still beating in his mangled body, but not long enough to make it to the hospital.
His wife was seven months pregnant at the time. She fell unconscious when informed, and delivered a premature, dead baby four hours later. She never succeeded in getting back on her feet; overcome by childbed fever, suffering for six months, she finally vanished into the shadows like an insubstantial shadow herself.
Gurudas received one thousand five hundred rupees from Nabendu’s provident fund, and another two housand rupees as ‘compensation’. And a few months later, just before Durga Puja, the war between Germany and England broke out.
From ‘panchambahini’ – fifth column – to ‘anubidaran’ – splitting the atom – Gurudas collected many new words during the six years of the war. These would have to be added to the appendix. But his work didn’t progress significantly during this period, he only got as far as the Bengali letter ‘Law’. Nor could he publish beyond the Bengali letter ‘Raw’; printing had become four times as expensive, and paper was hard to come by. Meanwhile, the landlord suddenly demanded seventeen rupees as rent for the house for which Gurudas had been paying seven and a half rupees all this time, the price of rice vaulted from four rupees per maund to forty, kerosene became too expensive for lanterns. And his eyes began to trouble him. The doctor said he had developed a cataract in one of them, and that surgery was necessary. This meant a trip to Calcutta and a cost of about a hundred and fifty rupees. He dismissed the proposition as soon as he heard it – it was more important to remain alive, even if on only one square meal a day.
They survived on Nabendu’s three and a half thousand rupees. He dipped into it to pay for Bhabani’s daughter’s wedding, which cost about five hundred. Despite controlling his expenditure strictly, the rest melted during the war years like ice put out in the sun. He had returned his daughter-in-law’s jewellery to her father.
It was during the war that Harimohini learnt that they no longer owned a home of their own. But she was not perturbed – she had lost that ability. She had turned inert after her son’s death – somewhat deranged. She seldom spoke, just eating her meals and staying in bed most of the time, and suffered from arthritis. Her teeth had fallen off, she was an old woman now.
Bhabani stood like a pillar, resilient. Her sons Amal and Bimal were in school. The elder one passed his Matriculation examination and joined Khulna College, where Gurudas intervened with the principal to ensure that he would not have to pay any fees. Bimal gave up studies suddenly and, applying his own judgement, got a job at the ration shop, where he learnt to pilfer. When the sixteen-year-old’s mother found out, she used a piece of wood to take the skin off his back.
Gurudas was penniless when the war ended. His salary and allowance at the school amounted to sixty-three rupees, but because of his age the authorities were pleading with him to retire. After much begging, he secured an extension of two years – he would have to leave after that.
But suddenly the problem of employment became a trivial one. Rivers of blood began to flow over the country, after which the country became independent. Khulna was allotted to Pakistan. Waiting and watching for a while, Gurudas decided to go away with his family.
It’s best not to talk about how the journey was made. Partly on foot, partly by train, occasionally on a boat across a river. Their belongings (such as they were) were left behind; they took only absolutely essential clothes, a few utensils, and his case of books. The published copies, handwritten notes, and… and virtually nothing else. All those books he had collected with so much effort since childhood had to be left behind.
Although they were unencumbered, the journey was not an easy one. He had grown old, his vision was dimmed. His wife hobbled. Amal and Bimal actually had to carry their grandmother at times – but how far can you walk bearing the weight of a heavy old woman? They had to pause for rest beneath trees, while Harimohini shrieked with arthritic pain. Rain. Sun. Dust. Droppings. Flies. And hordes of helpless people. Two babies were crushed to death by the crowd at Ranaghat Station.
It took ten days to get to Calcutta. They passed a week at Sealdah Station, eating nothing but muri, and were then transferred on a lorry to a camp at Bongaon, where they were served a lump of rice and dal at two every afternoon. Gurudas recovered a little on this diet, but there was no respite from Harimohini’s cries of pain.
Finally the lord took pity on her. Cholera broke out at the camp, and her heart gave way after she had emptied her stomach out several times. They could not cremate her themselves; government officials gathered bodies wholesale and took them away in a black vehicle.
Two months later they were given shelter at a refugee colony near Kanchrapara. Rows of one-room bamboo shanties, with a little space to cook in. A pond nearby, a tube-well for fresh water at a slight distance. Still, Bhabani set up a household despite the limitations. Amal got a job at a nearby mill, which helped them survive somehow. Bimal went to the dogs, spending all his time outdoors, smoking and watching films, though no one knew how he got the money for it.
Gurudas pulled out his notebooks again. One eye was clouded over with cataract, the other had dimmed too. Every moment of daylight was priceless. He went outside as soon as the sun rose, while Bhabani brought him a cup of tea and a little muri. Bhabani had to have her tea with her father – he insisted on it. Gurudas had discovered tea towards the end of the war. It really provided energy, and suppressed hunger too. Starting with the first light of day, he worked till the last rays of the sun faded. He sat cross-legged, his notebooks on a small stool, and just two or three books open around him – whatever he had been able to salvage from Khulna. When his back ached, he placed a book beneath the small of his back and lay down for a few minutes. It brought relief.
The next month Bhabani made him a bolster. And that same day he wrote a postcard to Bipin-babu at Bharat Press.
The reply came two days later. Bipin-babu had asked after him, expressing pleasure at hearing from him after such a long time. Demand had picked up for his dictionary recently, the previous editions had almost sold out. It was necessary to publish the subsequent volumes now. The money realised from the sales of the earlier volumes would be enough to publish the new ones – Gurudas would not have to pay any more money. Bipin-babu would be obliged if Gurudas could inform him when the new manuscripts would be available.
After a few more letters had been exchanged, Bipin-babu agreed to provide a monthly ‘assistance’ of fifteen rupees. Gurudas saved some of it to get some new books all over again. Several volumes were published in succession over the next two years; he got as far as the letter ‘Dontyo-shaw’ meanwhile.
The following year Gurudas finished his dictionary, while it took another two years to publish all the volumes. He had to read everything in print once more: the corrigenda, the appendices, everything. The ‘Great Bengal Dictionary’ was completed in fifty-two volumes. It had taken him thirty years. He was a young man of forty when he began – now the hair on his head was white, his back was bent, his cheeks were like crevices, his veins protruded on his skin. He was blind in one eye, and had marginal vision in the other.
Gurudas took to his bed a few days later. The task for which he had conserved the last drops of his energy had been completed, he no longer needed it. He recalled Shibani, Nobu, Nobu’s wife. He recalled his wife. ‘Don’t perform my last rites, Bhabani,’ he told his daughter. ‘I don’t believe in any of it.’
But he simply suffered in bed. Death wasn’t at his beck and call.
Meanwhile, there were murmurs in Calcutta about his dictionary. One Gurudas Bhattacharya had apparently composed a dictionary – an outstanding achievement. Word spread by word of mouth – to the university, to literary gatherings, to newspaper offices. Those who bought the dictionary praised it, those who didn’t praised it even more.
Eventually a young journalist appeared in a jeep one day, accompanied by Bipin-babu from Bharat Press. Gurudas did not speak much – he had no strength. Covering her face, Bhabani answered all their questions in a soft tone. A sensational report appeared in the next day’s paper, peppered with magnificent words like sacrifice, dedication and devotion.
And so Gurudas became famous.
It was the fifth year after Independence. The government had announced literary awards. Someone one the committee proposed Gurudas for an award. Gurudas Bhattacharya? Oh, the dictionary. Well… well, one has to admit he has accomplished a mammoth task, written thousands of pages. And, we hear he’s in financial difficulties, eking out an existence in a refugee colony – it would be a spending gesture. Something to capture the popular imagination with. You’ve seen how “Swadeshi Bazaar”: has praised him, haven’t you?
Gurudas was chosen to receive the award.
In reply to the official communication, Bhabani wrote that her father was ill and unable to visit Calcutta in any circumstances.
One of the younger ministers said, ‘Very well, let us go to him. People will approve.’
Therefore an enormous car drew up at the Kanchrapara refugee colony at ten o’ clock one morning, escorted by a jeep showing the way. A minister of the independent state emerged from the car, accompanied by two high officials, and two orderlies in shining red uniform. The same young journalist, a government clerk, and a photographer with a camera jumped out of the jeep. The car could not come up all the way to the door. As children and women watched with bulging eyes, they walked along the narrow path between rows of shanties to Gurudas’s hut. The tiny space was suddenly filled with people.
There was no room to sit – the ceremonies were conducted with everyone standing. The minister said a few words. A silk shawl, a bouquet of lowers, and one hundred rupee notes tied with a silk ribbon, amounting to five thousand rupees, were placed on Gurudas’s bed. The cameras clicked, Gurudas’s weak eyes blinked at the flash- popping bulbs.
He lay still on his back, his hands gathered at his chest. His expression did not betray whether he was aware of what was going on. But when the guests had moved away from his bed, when their demeanour suggested they wanted to leave but were staying back only out of embarrassment, Gurudas spoke clearly but faintly. ‘Turn me on my side, Bhabani. This is very funny, but if I laugh I will be insulting all these people. Make me face the other way.’ The eye with cataract was still, but laughter flashed in the other eye for an instant. Bhabani turned him over on his side carefully.
He died the same afternoon. His grandsons and the young men from the neighbourhood took him to the crematorium draped in the same silk shawl and covered with the same flowers.
He had made a single statement before dying. ‘Keep the money, Bhabani, it’ll prove useful for you.’
[ Original story: Ekti Jibon (1957) ]