PENGUIN BOOKS THOSE DAYS
Born in 1934 in Faridpur, now in Bangladesh, Sunil Gangopadhyay came as a refugee to
Calcutta in 1947, following the partition of India. The family suffered extreme poverty initially and
Sunil, though only in his teens, was forced to find employment. He still managed to continue his
education, taking his Master's degree from Calcutta University.
Sunil began his literary career as a poet, starting the epoch-making magazine, Krittibas,
in 1953. His better-known poetry collections are Eka ebang Kayekjon (1958), Amar
Swapna (1972), Bandi Jege Achhi (1974) and Ami ki Rakam Bhabe Benche
Achhi (1975). Storming into the field of the novel with the trendsetting Atma Prakash
(1966)—a powerful portrayal of the frustration and ennui of the youth of Calcutta—he soon rose to
become the leading and most popular novelist of Bengali. Sei Samai (1982), which won him
the Sahitya Akademi Award, and Purba Paschim (1989) are among his best novels.
Aruna Chakravarti took her Masters and Ph.D. degrees in English Literature from the University
of Delhi. She has held the post of reader in one of the affiliated colleges of the university for many
years and is, at present, its principal. She is also an author and translator of repute.
Her first translation, Tagore: Songs Rendered into English (1984), won the Vaitalik
Award for excellence in literary translation. Her translation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya's
immortal classic, Srikanta, is deemed her best work, having won the prestigious Sahitya
Akademi Award for 1996. Srikanta was published by Penguin India in 1993. She has also
written a biography of Sarat Chandra, entitled Sarat Chandra: Rebel and Humanist.
Translated by Aruna Chakravarti
To Milu and Akhil. . .
When Penguin India approached me with a request to translate Sunil Gangopadhyay's Sei
Samai, I found myself, I must confess, somewhat at a loss. I had read the book twice and loved
every moment of it but the thought of rendering it into English was daunting. For one thing it was a
marathon project—two volumes of closely printed text running into nine hundred and seven pages!
And that was not all. I was instructed to compress the matter and bring it down to five hundred
pages. I wrote to the author, whom I had met several times, and asked him to suggest areas that
might be deleted without disturbing the intrinsic pattern of the book. But he, very graciously, wrote
back to say that he would leave that to me, having full faith in my abilities.
Thus, with the responsibility fully and squarely on my shoulders, I sat down to take stock of the
situation. And to my surprise, I found that the task was not so formidable after all. The English
language lends itself, quite naturally, to greater precision than the Bengali. So, a certain amount of
tightening could be achieved without undue strain. Discreet deletions here and there took care of the
There was another hurdle that had to be overcome. The characters of Sei Samai speak
the lively dialect of nineteenth-century Calcutta. I researched a bit, trying to find a corresponding
dialect in English. Then, rejecting every one I found as unsuitable, I decided to make my characters
speak plain twentieth-century English with a few Bengali phrases and exclamations thrown in for the
ambience. The effect, I find, is not too much at variance with the original. I hope my Bengali readers
will share this view.
And now—a few words about Sei Samai. The novel, appearing in serial form in
Desh over a period of two and a half years and published in two volumes in 1981 and 1982,
respectively, presents a bold and startling deviation from the Marxian search for man's salvation that
was Sunil's forte in his work of the sixties and seventies. Sei Samai is a period novel set in
nineteenth-century Bengal. It explores the cross-currents of social, political and intellectual life in the
city of Calcutta during the period generally referred to as the Bengal Renaissance. This period, in the
opinion of Shibnath Shastri, stretches through the two decades between 1825 and 1845. 'Those
twenty years,' he writes in his Ramtanu Lahiri and Bengali Society of the Time, 'ushered in a
new era in the history of Bengal. There was an awakening in the realms of politics, religion and
education such as had never been witnessed before.' Sunil Gangopadhyay tries to reconstruct this
awakening in Sei Samai but the time-frame of his novel is different. 'My personal view,' he
writes in his epilogue to Sei Samai, is that the Bengal Renaissance, as we understand it,
manifested itself not in the span between 1825 and 1845 as Shibnath Shastri suggests but in the three
decades between 1840 and 1870.'
The novel has a vast canvas against which the lives and destinies of a number of historical figures
of the time are traced. Many fictional people and events find their place, too. In fact, one of the
unique features of the novel is the deftness with which the author weaves the actual and the purely
fictional into the tapestry of his story. Another is the quality of his voice—rational, analytical and
totally without bias.
Sunil Gangopadhyay's attempt is to synthesize two approaches to history. Like his illustrious
predecessor, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya in Durgesnandini, Mrinalini, Chandrasekhar and
Anandamath, he tries, on the one hand, to explore the reality of historical events and reconstruct
them as faithfully as possible. On the other, he moulds history to the point where it embodies a vision.
History is both symbolical and prophetic in Sei Samai.
The characters of Sei Samai, historical and fictional, are flesh and blood human beings,
caught between two worlds—one old, decrepit and dying by degrees and the other struggling to be
born. They are all protagonists; all engaged in a struggle—some to keep alive and perpetuate the old,
others to hasten its death and bring about the birth of the new. The characters are historically
authentic for the most part and so is the world they people. Yet, Sei Samai is not history.
Sunil Gangopadhyay makes that amply clear. 'Sei Samai is a novel—not a historical
document,' he writes in his epilogue. 'History is a record of palpable facts. Fiction is not. The fiction
write, even when depicting historical truth, has to invest it with the light of the imagination.' Thus,
Sunil's historical characters think, act and feel as he sees them do in his mind's eye. Vidyasagar
speaks a rough and ready tongue and weeps at the slightest provocation. Debendranath Thakur
exchanges the highest philosophical ideas with Rajnarayan Basu over a glass of wine. Harish
Mukherjee goes drinking and whoring with the lowest of the low and Madhusudan Datta has
homosexual yearnings for Gourdas Basak.
Readers have questioned these aspects of the book and indicted the author for taking
unwarranted liberties. Sunil answers their charges with the words: 'We Indians believe in idol worship
and cannot rest in peace till we have deified those we respect... But blasphemy is an excellent
component of great literature—a most useful one, too. When an attack, true or fabricated, is
directed against an illustrious personage of a previous age and time, the consequent situation is
fraught with controversy. And in the analyzing that invariably follows new light is sure to be shed and
a better perspective acquired. T.S. Eliot's near murder of Shelley did not destroy Shelley. It sparked
off a curiosity leading to greater awareness in the mind of the reader. I have been accused of
belittling the great sons of our land. I submit that I have done nothing of the kind. If, in the interest of
realism, I've depicted some of them as having feet of clay, I consider that I've done no wrong.'
One agrees with Sunil. The creative writer is beholden to no one. Something or someone fires
his imagination. He gives expression to it through a chosen medium. He is answerable only to himself
for it is his bounden duty to be faithful to his own thoughts and perceptions. The reader is at liberty to
accept or reject his work—in part or as a whole.
The creative writer, when recreating historical figures, is at a serious disadvantage. Barring
certain events which are recorded history and an anecdote or two, perhaps made popular by
repeated usage, he has little matter on which he can fall back. There is, therefore, no option for him
except to enter into an imaginary dialogue with his characters. He has to penetrate their minds and
keep pace with their steps—physical and mental. There are many who will challenge this kind of
identification and dismiss it as false and frivolous. But the creative writer, in my opinion, should be
given that liberty. He should feel free to interact with his characters and make them think and speak.
Only, he shouldn't strike a false note. And he won't do so if he remembers to keep them within their
time and context.
A point that has consistently plagued readers of Sei Samai is the true identity of Nabin
Kumar Singha. Is his character based on that of Kali Prasanna Singha's or isn't it? If it is, why has the
author changed his first name? And why is his paternity cast under a cloud? And if it isn't, why is the
translation of the Mahabharat and the authorship of the lively Hutom Pyanchar Naksha
attributed to him? And the book, interestingly enough, is dedicated to Kali Prasanna
Anticipating these questions, Sunil tells us that though Nabin Kumar's life and character bear a
slight resemblance to those of 'a certain historic personage who died while still a youth', the reader
should not make the mistake of seeking complete identification. Nabin Kumar and Kali Prasanna
Singha were both scions of wealthy landed families, possessed extraordinary intellectual powers and
died young. But here the resemblance ends. Practically nothing beyond these facts is known of Kali
Prasanna Singha. Nabin is a product of Sunil's imagination—a dynamic character of a tremendous
range and amalgam of qualities; a compound of strengths and weaknesses. Spoiled, arrogant and
vain, he was forceful, brilliant and humane. Moreover, he is portrayed as striving, consciously and
constantly, to better himself.
Though Nabin is the one character whose life and destiny are linked, albeit tenuously at times,
with all the characters of Sei Samai, Sunil Gangopadhyay does not project him as its hero. If
there is a hero at all it is Time. Time is the central character and the focal point of the novel. In order
to invest this abstraction with flesh and blood and make it a living entity, Sunil Gangopadhyay had to
have a symbol. Nabin Kumar is that symbol. His name, Nabin, meaning 'new' is a pointer to the part
he is to play in the novel. 'Oh! Time that is yet unborn!' he scribbles on a scrap of paper just before
his death. 'I salute you.
Nabin dies before fulfilling his dearest wish—that of hearing 'the cannon booming at midnight a
hundred times, ringing out the old and ringing in the new—the twentieth century', but his spiritual
successor, the young scholar and thinker, Pran Gopal, will do so. In fact, at the end of the book, he
already does so—in the imagination. 'Looking out into the night he heard its footsteps in the distance
and his eyes glowed with the light of another—a more glorious world.'
Chintamoni ,Matu- maids
Duryodhan, Nakur -servants
Kaliprasad, Chandikaprasad -his sons
An award-winning novel that uses both vast panoramic views and lovingly reconstructed
detail to provide an unforgettable picture of nineteenth-century Bengal.
The Bengal Renaissance and the 1857 uprising form the backdrop to Those Days, a
saga of human frailties and strength. The story revolves around the immensely wealthy Singha and
Mukherjee families, and the intimacy that grows between them. Ganganarayan Singha's love for
Bindubasini, the widowed daughter of the Mukherjees, flounders on the rocks of orthodoxy even as
his zamindar father, Ramkamal, finds happiness in the arms of the courtesan, Kamala Sundari.
Bimbabati, Ramkamal's wife, is left to cope with her loneliness.
A central theme of the novel is the manner in which the feudal aristocracy, sunk in ritual and
pleasure, slowly awakens to its social obligations. Historical personae interact with fictional
protagonists to enrich the narrative. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the reformer; Michael Madhusudan
Dutt, the poet; the father and son duo of Dwarkanath and Debendranath Tagore; Harish Mukherjee,
the journalist; Keshab Chandra Sen, the Brahmo Samaj radical; David Hare and John Bethune, the
English educationists-these and a host of others walk the streets of Calcutta again, to bring alive a
Translated from the Bengali by Aruna Chakravarti
Cover painting by James Baillie Fraser
Courtesy: Calcutta: City of Palaces (J.P. Losty)
© British Library/Arnold Publishers 1990