Buddhadeva Bose's record as a student of English literature at Dhaka University in the early 1930s remains unbroken. For those of us who four decades later went into a study of the same discipline at the same university, Bose remains a point of inspiration. And yet it is not merely Bose's pursuit of English literature as a student which has held us in thrall to him. There is the larger idea of Bose carving out a significant swath of territory for himself in the region of Bengali literature.
He was one of those young men who consciously sought to stay away from the deep, nearly all-encompassing influence of Rabindranath Tagore and indeed created a new school of thought that has for generations impressed the young. It was not that Buddhadeva Bose rebelled against Tagore or defied him. Far from it. What he and his contemporaries, Bishnu De for instance, did was simply to inform Bengalis and the outer world that there was literature, perhaps undiscovered territory, beyond Tagore.
The versatility in Bose is staggering. But, then, versatility is what critical writing is all about. Bose was a poet, a novelist, a critic and, like so many men who lived a life of the mind, a teacher. Yes, there were the flaws in him, the shortcomings which some of us have difficulty coming to terms with.
He left this part of the old Bengal right after he finished his education at Dhaka University and made Calcutta his home. That was again natural, for Calcutta was then, and is even today, the fountain of all that is brilliant about Bengali literature.
The sadness about Bose's departure for Calcutta, though, comes in the thought that in the years after he did not quite conceive of a nostalgic return to East Bengal. Of course, as we understand it, he was briefly in Dhaka in the early 1950s on some academic program. But there was in him not the slightest hint of wanting to stay back awhile and savor the memories of the past. One is not quite sure if he visited his old Dhaka University campus (he probably did not).
And yet, in a hugely significant way, Buddhadeva Bose was unable to free himself of the past. His attachment to PuranaPaltan, the few years he spent there until his graduation from Dhaka University, has always been of an unambiguous sort. Nostalgia has constantly dripped from his reminiscences of PuranaPaltan, a fact that literati in Bangladesh have consistently referred to in their assessment of Bose as a writer.
It was in Dhaka, especially through his love for PuranaPaltan, that Bose first began to demonstrate what would turn out to be his abiding love for his youthful past. That love, of course, is conspicuously absent for Cumilla, where he was born. He has little to say about his paternal village.
And when it comes to Noakhali, a place he never loved though he spent some years in it owing to his grandfather's stint ofposting there, he remained bitter. The bitterness comes through in his essay on Noakhali, the nondescript, un-literary place that gave him nothing. And yet, as he notes, Noakhali turned into a series of global headlines as India moved toward partition.
It turned with ferocity upon a part of its population. Bose does not mention the victimized Hindus, but you know he has that aversion for communal frenzy at the back of his mind. It was this insignificant Noakhali which drew the larger than life Gandhi to it. No one else went there. If anyone could put out the fire, it was Gandhi. Bose's bitterness is something you do not miss.
Bose's literary life was shaped, to a certain extent, by the circumstances in which he passed from youth to adulthood. His teaching experience at Ripon College in Calcutta, where Bishnu De was his colleague, kept him in professional touch with English literature.
But that in no way came between him and his literary creations. And that world of creativity, even if you were to keep aside the many journals he shaped or edited, was vast. His collections of poetry, at once modern and yet tinged with the hallmarks of tradition, made him a force to reckon with.
His fiction explored the somewhat unconventional and, as Raat Bhor Brishti (translated by Clinton B. Seely as It Rained All Night) was to demonstrate, could at times push him into trouble.
Brishti, an exploration of sexuality at a triangular level, was decried, legally, as obscenity. It certainly troubled Bose, as it will have troubled any individual for whom literature is symbolic of a passion for life. Poetry, so Bose appeared to believe, was a lot more important than life. That led to raised eyebrows, but it mattered little to Bose.
There were the ironies in Buddhadeva Bose's perceptions of politics. He was right to make himself part of the writers' movement against fascism in 1942. He was wrong to think, all the way from the 1950s to his death in 1974, that American policy was a boon for the world. It was not, at least not always.
It is this craftsman of modernity in Bengali literature we celebrate today. As Ketaki Kushari Dyson points out, 'Buddhadeva believed that in order to write with authenticity and to develop their potentials fully, creative writers really had to engage with their mother tongues and write in them, not in a language that was a colonial legacy.'
(Buddhadeva Bose was born in Cumilla on 30 November 1908 and died in Calcutta on 18 March 1974).
The writer is Editor-in-Charge,
The Asian Age.
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