Professor Arun Kumar Das Gupta, of the Department of English at Presidency College, Calcutta (now Presidency University, Kolkata), passed away recently. He was 91, and had been suffering from dementia for years. Just before his death, he had slipped into a coma and then had gone into sepsis. When his younger daughter, Ruchira, sent me a photograph of him lying on bed with a nasal tube attached, his legs irrecoverably thinner than the footprints that he had left on the world, I could not bear his humiliation any longer. When he died shortly after, I did not cry. His suffering, like a desert, had deprived my eyes of water.
Ruchira, along with her elder sister Monisha, lives in the United States. The two of them took turns to be with him, particularly at crucial moments. Monisha had joined Ruchira on a video call just before his death. Both of them looked at him, subdued into a jealous silence that had descended on the lectures in which he had invited generations of students to enter the garrulous agora of knowledge. He had spoken softly, always, but his very presence had been auditory. To see him had been literally to hear the call of thought, like an annoyed mother calling her truant children back into her arms at dusk.
Arunbabu had been a distinguished student. After attending Scottish Church Collegiate School, he had proceeded to Presidency and had graduated with first-class Honours in English in 1951, by which time he had caught the mentoring attention of the legendary Professor Tarak Nath Sen. After passing through Calcutta University and Wadham College, Oxford, he returned to Bengal and eventually to Presidency. Those had been unquiet times in an India that had snatched independence from colonial Britain, but he had retained the intellectual equanimity that enabled him to engage the young in the ageless thoughts of all who had been young once, certainly from the age of the Greeks in the 5th Century B.C.
I read English with him from 1974 to 1977. In the second half of the insurrectionary 1970's, Calcutta had emerged from the Naxalite movement like a wounded passerby bewildered by the sudden arrival of an unseasonal storm. In the first half of the decade, history and culture in Bengal had taken a severe beating in the three-cornered fight among the Naxalites, the parliamentary Communists, and the ruling Congress. The Red Brigade had vandalised statues of Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, Raja Rammohun Roy and Subhas Chandra Bose in pursuit of a cultural revolution imported from China to the heart of central Calcutta. Iswarchandra had been castigated as a stooge of British imperialism because he had sheltered troops of the East India Company in Sanskrit College during the Sepoy Mutiny. Since Presidency lies just across College Street from Sanskrit College, I wondered whether, in the process of the Naxalites exacting historical vengeance, I should be executed because I was prolonging the cultural life of English, the language of colonial power that had lived into the "bourgeois" independence of India that the Naxalites despised and deplored. I lived on because the infantile, adventurist grasp of their movement had been exhausted by its material overreach.
Arunbabu taught people like me to find a way out of our historical situation by believing in the survival of ideas through time. His lectures on King Lear were Elizabethan in the sense that they drew on the Renaissance as the cultural enabler that had prompted an English bard named William Shakespeare to find his dramatic agency in the passage of universal time through Europe. Arunbabu also placed Shakespeare in a tradition that lasted long after the Elizabethans had left the English stage. I remember in particular a lecture in which he had related Shakespeare's Lear forwards, towards Albert Camus and his Myth of Sisyphus, a literary exercise in existentialist philosophy in which Camus rests his case on the concept of the absurd. The Greek dissenter Sisyphus is condemned for all eternity to roll an immense boulder up to the top of a mountain, only to have the rock roll back down to the bottom every time he reaches the top. He must return to the boulder to resume his punishment. The futility but also the necessity of his action symbolises the workings of the absurd, the realisation that the world is not rational. Camus writes: "At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world." Lear is redeemed finally through his reconciliation with Cordelia. No such redemption awaits Sisyphus. He is returning to his boulder at this very moment.
No redemption awaited me either as I flew out of Lecture Room 23 of Presidency on that intellectually violent afternoon. The necessary acceptance of futility is a motif that has guided me since then. What a sentient human makes of that futility is what distinguished her or him from lower mortals: donkeys pulling heavy carts before a bus crashes into them, squirrels running across lonely roads before they are crushed under the wheels of sudden cars, faithful dogs turned homeless when their loving owners die, goats and chickens slaughtered for everyday meals, and even cauliflowers and cabbages culled to feed the purest diets of vegetarians. They die but they do not make sense of their death. That is because they are not human. Humans have no easy passage: They must justify or rationalise both their time on earth and the necessity of its passage.
What was remarkable about the golden days of the English Department at Presidency was that students and teachers all spoke in Bengali except during class and tutorials. Arunbabu wore a dhuti punjabi, with only a cursory sweater borrowed from Western civilisation to shield him during Bengali winters. So did the saintly Sailendra Kumar Sen, Professor and Head of Department through my time at Presidency. Professor Kajal Sengupta wore a sari and drove a natty Morris Minor which never broke down and got her to class on time. I have a suspicion that the car was so assiduous in its labours because Kajaldi had taught it Bangla!
Those were the days, and those were the times that were mine. Sailenbabu and Kajaldi have passed on, and how Arunbabu has joined them. They have left me to wonder how seamlessly the literature of English pases through the Bengaliness of time.
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