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SANKHA GHOSH: ‘The Silent Index Finger’

The passing away of noted Bengali poet, essayist, Tagorian scholar, at the age of 90 on April 21st signifies an end of an era in Bengali literature and creates an irreplaceable void in the cultural domain of Bengali intelligentsia. Otherwise, soft-spoken and sober, Sankha babu in his immaculate white-dhoti-Punjabi, in his quiet and calm way became the most vociferous voice of Bengali youth and civil society in his writings. Be it on anything in the cultural field or the world around us, he became the conscience of every sensitive, educated Bengali, who never hesitated to speak out his mind, loud and clear, irrespective of the political regimes in the state.

Meeting this humble man, one could never imagine that he was the recipient of many prestigious literary honours. The recipient of Narsimh Das Purashkar, Sahitya Akademi Award, Rabindra Puroshkar, Saraswati Samman, Gyanpeeth Award, Deshikottam, Padmabhushan, Honorary D.Lits and many more.

Sankhababu was humility personified. Vanity or snobbery was unknown in his lexicon. 

The door of his modest flat at Ishwar Chandra Nivas housing complex at Ultadanga in Kolkata was always open to one and all from early morning to late night and it largely remained so, even when Covid protocols were relaxed. 

Starting from his students to authors, scholars of national and international repute, cutting across age and gender, his home had the sanctity of literary pilgrimage. When people took leave of him, he made sure to see them off till the landing of the staircase. It was like making them feel he felt honoured by their visits.

Every Sunday morning aspiring poets, budding litterateurs would sit around him, as if he were the crown of a shady banyan tree, for long winding addas (intellectual exchanges), and Sankha babu would lap up every moment, drawing his succor as does root from the soil. It was as much a window to the outside world of young minds, their thoughts and struggles of life as an opening to let in the fresh breeze and ventilate his mind.  

Scholars visited him with their manuscripts for his valuable suggestions, poets, authors came with their recent publications, celebrities in their fields, fans came to him with huge literary appetites and he had the same warmth for everyone. He took the pain to go through every work and always had words of encouragement for them. Those, slightly lucky, often got an affectionate rebuke or got a touch of his crackling humour. If his students invited him to their wedding, he made sure to attend them as he took the trouble of leafing through the dictionary to come up with names, if people requested him to name their infants. One can’t help wonder how he managed to write poems and scholarly essays between all the sundry humdrum things! 

Sankha babu by profession was a professor of Bangla Language and literature, who taught in several colleges of Kolkata before joining the Bangla Department of Jadavpur University. He was also a visiting Professor of Visva Bharati University and Delhi University. To his students, he was Professor Chittapriya Ghosh (his initials--- CG as per the class roster).

While other contemporary poets were bohemian, Sankha babu was disciplined, meticulous, and punctual.

The word around was that one could fix the time on his/her wristwatch by checking when he was entering the class. He was known for making the entry right on time, not a minute early, not a minute late.    

From now on I would address Sankha babu as Sir since I had the privilege to be his student. Students from different departments of Jadavpur University or other universities would throng his class lectures. Apart from Tagore, Sir also took classes on modern Bangla poetry, but he would never take up and discuss his poems with us, despite being one of the leading poets of the modern period. A stalwart that he was of his times, he would never utter anything about his contribution to the literary field! The portions on him were taught by other professors. Some of the texts we had to read or books we had to refer to would invariably have scholarly articles written by him, but Sir would cautiously steer clear of mentioning those books written or edited by him, even though he gave a detailed bibliography. Such was his humility!

The best way to embarrass him in class was either to mention the name of books or ask him to explain ideas from books, authored by him. Sir would immediately blush like a teenager trying to escape from the topic as fast as he could. The bemused students made a parody from Sir’s poem- ‘Murkha boro Samajik noy’ (A Fool, not social at all)- ‘Bhadro boro swabhabik noy’ (Too gentle and polite, not normal)!

 Meanwhile, Sir developed some serious bronchial problem so it was becoming difficult for him to lecture for hours or speak loudly in a classroom of 40-50 students. But Sir loved to teach and students were not ready to let him go. Once he submitted his resignation letter but the students almost forced him to withdraw. He was back in the classroom again with a small battery-operated microphone for the benefit of students. But when he suffered bouts of cough students would rush to get warm water for their favourite Sir. Such was their love and respect for CG! Once when was taken ill and suffered serious throat ailments, he returned to classrooms after a brief break, much against the wishes of his family members. Students were also a part of his extended family.

He would always close the door after entering the classroom and clean the blackboard before and after delivering a lecture, never leaving anything for anyone. Once out of curiosity students asked him why he always chose to close the door. Sir smiled and replied:

“Since I know nothing much, it’s better to limit my knowledge within these four walls!” To his Ph. D scholars he would tell them to start their research with an intriguing mind of a detective-“While researching any subject, never leave anyone beyond suspect and start that with your guide.”

I had the privilege of attending Sir’s classes on Rabindranath’s Raktakarabi (Red Oleander), and the lectures were deemed as treasure troves in the history of Bangla academia. It was our misfortune that he never allowed us to record any of his lectures. If he became aware or noticed someone trying to record, he would immediately become mum. 

He had an immaculate style of teaching, which undoubtedly enriched the language and generations of Bangla scholars. For seminars, workshops, and exhibitions in the department he would be the key person, bubbling with ideas, energy, always leading from the very front. The students loved him and Sir knew exactly how to motivate and encourage them for bigger constructive work. The day he retired from Jadavpur University; the entire department bade him goodbye with moist eyes.

 While teaching Tagore before taking up the text, he would rattle off different page numbers for different editions with ease. Believe it or not, he always got it right.

Sir knew the page numbers of every edition of all the volumes of Tagore’s complete works, published by different publishers by heart!

Here comes the importance of Professor Sankha Ghosh as a scholar and exponent of Tagore and his works. He was a member of different committees working on Tagore and was instrumental in giving a new dimension to studies on Tagore in the international realm. One of the greatest contributions of Professor Sankha Ghosh was to inculcate interest on Rabindranath Tagore among the young generation, making them understand the relevance of this great philosopher in the background of changing times. Not only, Tagore, but Professor Ghosh was also an authority or living encyclopedia on Bangla literature. Scholars and students, looking for some reference, would simply call him up and he never disappointed them. And if anybody tried to challenge or overrule what he said, the standard reply would be--- “Sankhada/Swayang Khoda (The Almighty) has said it! During the days of letter-printing, it was a common joke that presses are running short of the Bengali letters শ, ঙ, খ, ঘ and ষ (which were essential for the spelling of his name in Bangla) since in every article or book everyone is using Sir’s name!

But what might intrigue one was that his style of writing poetry was distinctly different from that of Tagore.  

Broadly Sankhababu’s poems can be grouped into two different categories- one—subjective, depicting love, relationship, and the crisis of a sensitive modern man, the other dealing with the larger social and political world. Born in Chandpur of undivided Bengal, which is now in Bangladesh, his poems often resonate with the pain of rootlessness. Several lines of his poems on love and relationship, bearing the crisis of a modern individual, have become proverbial in the lingua-franca of intellectual Bengal.

 His more political poems give the Bengali intelligentsia a voice to speak up against the injustice and authoritarianism that powers at the helms have unleashed time and again. And he wouldn’t just consider his work done by writing something as a mark of protest.

He would hit the streets physically, even in his failing health, and walk-in protest marches if he felt the injustice needed to be flagged off.

Since he was always neutral and humane in his approach, people equated him with the voice of conscience and reason. People were eager to hear him out, his opinions about various crises engulfing the world. Though he couldn’t be identified with any political straitjackets, the world of politics was keen to tag him with them as his words carried a different weight, not to speak of their rationale and wisdom. 

Like Bengal, Bangladesh too was very close to his heart. Sankha babu loved traveling to Bangladesh, once his home. He always took a keen interest in what was being written across the border in Bangladesh. But once when President Ershad of Bangladesh invited him as a state guest during his dictatorial regime, Sankhababu simply turned down his offer.

No doubt for the last three decades Sankhababu was one of the most prominent figures of West Bengal! Be it in the field of literature or the fields of social injustice and politics, his voice counted a lot. And thus for the ruling parties, he was sometimes a major embarrassment. They would try to muffle him the way people on the seat of power do- luring him, humiliating and insulting him but he was not to be cowed down. He remained tall, towering unyielding to power, intimidation, or any unseemly eventuality. He wrote a poem ‘Crawling’ (Hamaguri) about the spinelessness of people:

Crawling

Suddenly my sleep broke. Is a storm blowing outside?

The window panes are rattling

At times it's lightning.

While trying to go back to sleep, I felt someone crawling in the room. ‘Who's there? Who?’

The crawler does not respond.

I go near and ask him again, 'Who are you? What do you want?'

Not looking eye-to-eye or holding head up

 I could hear, 'Yes searching, I must search

As soon I get it, I will get out walking on my feet.'

'What are you searching for?'

He answered in a thin voice 'my spine.'

And in that moment lightning struck again, Amazed, I saw...

Not one, but many, many more

Crawling inside from one corner to another 

For the same reason.

[Translated from the original by the author of this article)

Post Script:  For the past two years Sir was suffering from Parkinson's and as his vocal chords became weak he used to talk at a very low pitch. His wife Professor Pratima Ghosh was also suffering from age-related ailments. Her vision became dim and she developed hearing problems. In 2020. Sir wrote a poem-- Deshantar, perhaps a commentary on the situation the elderly couple was thrown into. 

Another Country

'Who said my voice has become feeble?

And You can’t hear properly?

Even now when hands meet

Feels like a lightning, clearly.

In that lightning, the voice resonates everywhere

The sparks’ brilliance radiates every nook 

Of our small room, where the solar system

Comes down to touch us near

The past startled in that lightning

The future spread over a wink

The rivers entwine

Forests and the mountains recreate the link.

Who says we have stopped moving?

Bear only the times brunt in our body?

Lost our way, far away from the society?

Like a refugee moving from country to country

 Even today we can travel easily

Become a citizen of any country.

(Though I know my leg can't take me far-

And know too you can't see afar.)'                                    

 [Translated from the original poem by the author of this article]

Pratimadi, his lifelong partner passed away eight days after Sir’s death on 29th April.

SARASIJ SENGUPTA

Associate Professor,

Department of Bengali Language & Literature

St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College

Kolkata.

REFERENCES

[1] Image source: https://www.indiatoday.in/lifestyle/people/story/celebrated-bengali-poet-sankha-ghosh-dies-of-covid-at-89-in-kolkata-1793361-2021-04-21

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