After 47 years, Indian writer Sankar is sensation of London Book Fair

April 22nd, 2009 - 5:39 pm ICT by IANS  

By Dipankar De Sarkar
London, April 22 (IANS) Fortyseven years after he created a sensation with his best-selling novel about a hotel in his native Kolkata, Bengali writer Sankar is kicking up a literary storm in the West.

Sankar, whose real name is Mani Sankar Mukherjee, has turned out to be the surprise triumph of the ongoing London Book Fair - feted by academics, lauded by reviewers and mobbed by fans.

From heavyweights such as Vikram Seth to relative unknowns, Sankar’s admirers have lined up to be photographed with him.

At age 75, Sankar couldn’t be a happier man today.

His 1962 novel “Chowringhee” has been translated into dozens of Indian languages, sold hundreds of thousands of copies in India and Bangladesh and made into a film that is a Bengali cine-classic.

But for all his success in India, he has been a virtual unknown in the West.

“For 47 years I had this typically Bengali arrogance about me. ‘Let them come to me,’ I said, ‘I won’t go to them’,” Sankar told IANS.

“That is what happened. And now I feel relaxed. You know, it’s been worth the wait,” said Sankar with a broad smile.

“When ‘Chowringhee’ was first published and became a bestseller, many people in Kolkata began gossiping, ‘Oh, he is an illiterate. What does he know about writing’.”

Does he feel vindicated perhaps?

“No, no. Not vindicated. I feel relaxed, just relaxed.”

Sankar, who is a household name in Bengal and much loved by book-lovers elsewhere in India, is among 50 writers who are in the British capital for the April 20-23 book fair, which has an India focus this year.

“Chowringhee,” a page-turner that chronicles life in a hotel called Shahjahan as a microcosm of life in post-independence Kolkata, has been universally hailed by British literary critics in the runup to the book fair.

“It’s an utter treat,” proclaimed Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of The Independent.

“I won’t be quite alone in claiming that this half-century old novel translated from the Bengali might, to many eyes, supply more unashamed, reader-transporting enjoyment than any other fiction of the year.”

“You want to turn the pages, but you do not want the pages to end,” wrote the Sri Lankan novelist Ramesh Gunasekara in The Guardian about the book, which has been translated into English by Arunava Sinha.

“Everything comes to the old hotel, either to the sumptuous guest rooms or to the terrace where the staff live. Love and death are never far away. Sankar writes of both simply and movingly. There will be many grateful readers at his table.”

Sankar, whose first job in Kolkata was as a clerk to Noel Barwell, the last British barrister at Calcutta High Court, credits his late employer for introducing him to life in the corporate world.

“He helped me to familiarise myself with everybody - from the simple shoe-shine boy to the Boxwallah (senior executive).”

The hotel on which the Shahjahan is modelled is the now-defunct Spencer’s in the cental Kolkata neighbourhood of Chowringhee, where Barwell was a guest for a long time,

“My first novel, Koto Ajanare (So Many Unknowns) was about Barwell,” Sankar told IANS.

“It’s my wish to see that book translated into English one day.”

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