On my last trip to Kolkata, I had what can only be described as a uniquely bhadralok experience: I bought a book by a Dasgupta about another Dasgupta, which was sold to me by a third Dasgupta, after he had been guided by a fourth Dasgupta.
To explain how this came about, I need to go back thirty years, to the time I was an undergraduate at the University of Delhi. The University had an award known as the ‘Rector’s Prize’, which had the same sort of caché as the Premnath Roychand scholarships in Calcutta. One first took a written exam, where one was quizzed on facts of ‘general (sic) knowledge’. If one made it to the short-list, then one was subjected to an interview by a panel headed a professor legendary for more things than holding a chair named after the greatest of modern Bengalis. Known (as I was to discover later) as ‘Rabi babu’ in his native land, in the University of Delhi he was referred to as ‘RKDG’, the initials spoken (or whispered) with both fear and admiration.
In my first year I got through the written test comfortably. At the interview I was asked to declare an interest. ‘Cricket and especially cricket history’, I answered. That winter, India was in the middle of its most exciting Test series on home soil—against Clive Lloyd’s West Indians—and I had been weaned on Wisden’s anyway. ‘Every young man is interested in cricket nowadays’, said the Tagore professor, and showed me—none too politely—the door.
The next year I was better prepared. The written test was even easier, and it was with a certain degree of confidence that I walked into the interview. Asked the same question as the last time, I replied: ‘Bird watching, or more precisely, ornithology’. The legendary professor was momentarily taken aback. While he gathered his (very considerable) wits, the other members of the panel—both ladies—weighed in with questions. ‘There is a bird that nests in the mango tree in my garden’, asked little old lady number 1: ‘It is green and has an orange beak. What could it be?’. ‘The Green Barbet’, I answered confidently. ‘Some months ago I saw the most exquisite bird fly into my house’, enquired LOL no. 2: ‘It was a dazzling white, and carried a long black tail. But it never came again!’. ‘Oh, that must have been the Paradise Flycatcher’, I replied: ‘And he is merely a seasonal visitor to Delhi. Don’t worry, he will be back again next summer’.
And so the interview went on, and on. The ladies asked me to identify bird after bird, and I did not let them down. That I was interested in ‘ornithology’ was to stretch the truth, somewhat: the fact was that I had been born and raised in the beautiful, bird-rich campus of the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun. A proper ornithologist, Dr Joseph George, had identified no fewer than four hundred and fifty bird species in the FRI. Growing up in the place, and walking its woods and fields, I could not but acquaint myself with at least a hundred of these. To be asked to identify the few dozen species that visited homes in the polluted and crowded capital of India was the easiest ‘examination’ a boy from the Doon would ever have to take.
However, a few dozen questions take time, even if—as in the present case— they were asked in quick succession, and answered (more or less) without a pause. As the ladies put forth their queries and I obligingly met them, the Tagore Professor of Comparative Literature shifted uncomfortably in his seat. I suspect that the experience was new, for him—that never before in the many years he had conducted the Rector’s Prize had he not been able to control the flow of an interview.
At last the questions dried up. The ladies sat back in their seats, content. I sat upright in mine, with a smirk on my face. Handed back his voice—and his authority—the Tagore Professor asked: ‘Young man, who was known as the “Parrot of India”, the Tuti-e-Hind?’. The balloon of pride inside me slowly, and audibly, deflated itself. ‘No idea, Sir’, I stuttered. ‘You may now leave’, said the Professor.
I was still hopeful. The little old ladies had seemed so impressed. Admittedly, I had stumbled at the last hurdle, but surely to answer twenty-four questions out of twenty-five would see me, if not to the Prize itself, at least to second or third place? (The main award had a cash prize of—as I recall—five hundred rupees, but the two consolation prizes were handsome enough to allow the awardee to take his friends for a decent treat). Surely the ladies would plead my case?
When the list of prize-winners was put up later that week my name was not on it. Worse was to come. That Sunday, I picked up the morning newspaper, and read through the political news and the sports news before turning to the magazine section. The main feature here bore the title: ‘Amir Khusro—the Tuti-e-Hind’. Below, in bold type, was the author’s byline—R. K. Dasgupta.
That my first intellectual humiliation should have come at the hands of a Bengali will not be a surprise to the readers of this newspaper. (This is, after all, a culture that greatly esteems learning and literature.) The Freudians among them may choose also to read a deeper, or more malign, meaning into my recounting of this incident. Is it because of that early experience that I left Delhi to come to Kolkata to do a Ph D? Is it because of the further humiliations I suffered here—at the hands of other bhadralok scholars—that I return again and again to the alleged inadequacies and hypocrisies of the Bengalis?
The question I asked myself then, and later, is somewhat more mundane. Was ‘RKDG’ planning to write the piece on Amir Khusro anyway, or was he provoked into it by the excesses of a foolish undergraduate?
Last year I was in London; staying at a friend’s house, I picked, as my bedside reading, a memoir of a football-mad Bengali boy growing up in London. The author was one Dasgupta; I noticed that among his other publications was a book on R. K. Dasgupta, identified as the last representative of the Bengali Renaissance. When I returned home I asked my normally resourceful Bangalore bookseller to locate the book for me. He failed, which was not his fault; for I did not know the publisher, and had possibly misrepresented the title.
Visiting Kolkata earlier this year, I asked a colleague where I might find the book I was looking for. She directed me to Dasgupta’s in College Street, an institution that dates back to 1888. Alas, like the Bangalore bookseller this man too pleaded helplessness in the absence of full information. Fortunately, another visitor to the shop overheard the conversation, and was able to supply more details—the author’s first name was Subrata, she said, and the publisher was most likely Dey’s. When asked, the Good Samaritan identified herself as Supriya Chaudhuri (neé Dasgupta); that is, as one-half of a literary couple justly famous in Kolkata, and beyond. A phone call followed; a quarter-of-an-hour later the book was in my hands. I look forward now to reading it, thus to find out more about the tormentor of my youth, and the culture he was reared in and came to dignify and to grace.