I am happy I had a ticket to ride in the 50s: novelist Sankar (Interview)

August 22nd, 2008 - 11:49 am ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Aug 22 (IANS) Winter always brings with it the promise of spring. Novelist Mani Shankar Mukherjee or Sankar, a household name in Bengal, believes his life is the greatest inspiration story of a bleak December thawing with the spring sunshine of a hard-earned February.”When I look back, I feel proud that I had a ticket to ride in the golden age of Bengali culture of the fifties. I was writing side by side with some of the biggest names in Bengali literature - Benoy Mukherjee or ‘Jajabar’, Saradhindu Bandopadhyay and Manik Bandopadhyay. It was a tremendous experience.

Post-Rabindranath Tagore, the 1950s was the golden age in Bengal, the novelist said. “There was a galaxy of writers. Bengal never had so many great authors at the same time. But nobody realised that we were passing through the golden age. Bengali music was flourishing, but nobody appreciated it. Bengali films never had it so good,” said the author, three of whose novels - “Chowringhee”, “Jana Aranya” and “Seemabaddha” - were made into very successful movies by Satyajit Ray.

Mani Shankar Mukherjee, who grew up in Howrah district of West Bengal, had a chequered childhood and adolescence. Having lost his father as a teenager, he had to give up studies in search of a livelihood.

He became a clerk to the last British barrister of the Kolkata High Court, Noel Frederick Barwell. The job changed his life. Barwell introduced Sankar to the world of quality literature.

After Barwell’s sudden death, Sankar, a name he had to take on for the sake of his job, wanted to honour his intellectual mentor. “First, I wanted to build a statue. It was not possible. I then wanted to name a road. Even that was not feasible. And then I decided to write a book about him,” the novelist told IANS in an interview here.

That was the genesis of “Kato Ajanare” (So Much Unknown) - his first novel about his employer that according to readers and old-timers is perhaps the most stimulating of his “bagful of novels”.

It was around the same time, in 1962, that Sankar conceived “Chowringhee” on a rainy day at the waterlogged crossing of Central Avenue and Dalhousie - a busy business district in the heart of Kolkata. The novel, set in the opulent hotel he called Shahjahan, was made into a cult movie in 1968.

Suppose Sankar was to write “Chowringhee” now, would it still be the same? “Things have changed,” he laughs. “The five-star design and architecture of the luxury hotels are so common and drab. But the fellows are still the same. I would love to write an update if Penguin commissions me.

“The business of travel was very different those days. Each hotel and its cast of characters had individual personalities. It was fascinating. Now, the Indian Standards Organisation (ISO) dominates everything, even the chef. There are gimmicks. Suppose the reception desk picks up the phone and says, ‘Mr Mukherjee, how are you’, remember it is a computer doing it, not the man.”

“May be I am a bit old world,” he rationalised.

The author, who describes the process of manufacturing rapid-fire stories as “dead pebbles turning into khajurs (dates) in the nectar of the mind”, is currently working on biographies.

“It is a new genre; but biographies are not much different from fiction. Lives are more fictional than fictional researches. It is only that fiction has fictitious characters,” he said.

Sankar’s latest biography, “The Unknown Face of Vivekananda - Part I” has sold more than 89,000 copies, which according to the author is a feat in itself for a biography. “I am almost through with my Part II and then I will begin work on ‘Unknown Face of Aurobindo’.”

The Aurobindo biography will have an interesting detail about the revolutionary-turned-spiritualist’s personal life - his equation with his wife. “Aurobindo advertised on the matrimonial columns of newspapers while in Baroda for a suitable partner. And came to Calcutta to marry,” Sankar disclosed.

The 75-year-old author, who has turned vegetarian after his wife’s death last year, is also planning a book on cuisine, another field of interest.

“Imagine a machhlikhor (fish-eater) turning vegetarian. But the decision was out of choice. I am a simple man,” he said with a laugh.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)

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