Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Memories of my grandfather

Today is my maternal grandfather Shyamal Chakrabarty’s birthday. He was born in 1920 and passed away in 1975 when I was only seven.

I still remember him vividly. He was one person who never said no to anything I asked for, though being a somewhat serious kid, I usually asked for books. To be honest, there were times my mother spotted him awkwardly waiting at the door of our ancestral house in Bhowanipore, Calcutta in the early afternoon, apparently waiting for a particular ice-cream vendor with his cart to show up since I had vaguely expressed appreciation for ice-creams of a particular variety.

Dadu studied in Mitra Institution, Bhowanipore, where among his classmates and friends were the poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay and the singer Hemanta Mukhopadhyay. In 1937 he joined Presidency College, and graduated with a BA degree in Economics in 1939. I would do the same exactly fifty years later. His contemporaries, such as Uma Sehanobis, a family friend, would remark that she remembers Dadu wearing a dhoti and kurta and with gold-rimmed glasses, cutting quite an attractive figure. While a Master’s student at Calcutta University he joined a Left party and remained a lifelong member.

After doing his Master’s in Calcutta University he was a whole-time party member for a while, and then joined the Economics faculty of Vidyasagar College for Women in 1958, a post he held until his sudden and unexpected death in East Berlin in 1975 as part of an Indian delegation on education policy. He wrote several books on education policy in India, housing conditions in Calcutta, a small monograph on Vidyasagar that was published by NCERT, and essays in various magazines and journals, including Parichay and Ekkhon. He was active in the WBCUTA (West Bengal College and University Teacher’s Association) and a founder-member of Neerokkhorota Dureekoron Samiti (Society for Eliminating Illiteracy).

These are things that were later told to me and my brother Saran by our mother Lipi, his only child. I just remember his warmth and how his face lit up when I came to visit. Also, his living room always had many visitors and I would impatiently wait for them to leave so that I could monopolize his attention. When the news of his death reached Calcutta, I am told that his colleagues in Vidyasagar College, both teaching and non-teaching staff, and mostly women, were in tears. He was a heart patient. With modern drugs that are available now, he would have lived much longer. Throughout my life I have met countless people, both men and women, from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds, and cutting across political lines, whose face would light up instantly when they figured out I was Shyamal/Shyamal-da/Shyamal-babu's grandson.

I sometimes imagine talking to him. He would not have liked to see the fate of the political system he believed in or the state of disarray the Left political movement is in. I suspect we would not fully agree on the causes and consequences of these events, but I would like to think that in terms of a vision of a fair and inclusive society, we would not differ very much.
Mostly though I think of a large living room in a house that no longer exists on Priyanath Mallick Road, Calcutta with bookshelves all around and a middle-aged man, not much older than me now, sitting and writing at his desk, who seems delighted to be interrupted by a solemn-faced little boy who has just woken up from his afternoon nap.

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