Tag Archives: a kaleidoscope world

Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta: Tale of an Untold Tragedy

Prologue

The river of life, like any other river, flows forwards. And by the time it reaches its estuary, it is often difficult to figure out where it originated. This is not true of mighty rivers, such as the Mississippi or the Amazon or our own Ganges. But there were endlessly many smaller rivers that had borne their cargo filled boats since ancient times and dried up, leaving little trace of the waters that had lapped their shores in their youth. To discover the course these rivers might have followed, or even their names sometimes, one needs to trace them backwards.

The same observation applies to human beings too. Unlike David Copperfield, who told the story of his life “from the beginning of his life”, some, such as the person whose life story of sorts I will attempt to resurrect, left behind him hardly any documentary trace of himself. Nor did people who knew him well and had good reason to preserve his memory for posterity undertake that task. Or, at least, methodically so. What survive about the man are mostly unverifiable rumours left behind by people who have themselves ceased to exist. Nonetheless, as a living member of the family Dr. Das Gupta belonged to, but born well after he had himself departed from the “breathing world”, I took up this near impossible task of recreating the man. I had heard about him on the family grapevine at best and was well aware of the absurdity of the pursuit. I plodded along nonetheless. I believed, I suppose, that even half a true story could well be worth the effort. Pasts are obliterated undoubtedly, but never completely so.

My work began around 2018. The search yielded scattered information, which, though not arranged in chronological order, were valuable. Each new finding added to my excitement as I went along putting the bits and pieces together, hoping to recreate as much of the person as I could.

Since this story moves backwards, it is best perhaps to begin with a calendar record of the year Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta rejoined his creator. He had breathed his last in the year 1938. This piece of information was gleaned from a faded old letter written by Professor Parimal Ray1 from Dacca (now renamed Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh) to his friend Mr. Pankaj Kumar Das Gupta2 (popularly known to his family and friends as “Ponku”). India was still a British colony when the letter arrived. It was composed in Bengali. Translated into English, it reads as follows.

Department of Economics
University of Dacca
Ramna, Dacca

23rd November, 1938

Dear Ponku-babu,
I couldn’t help writing this letter. Ever since the departure of your family members from Dacca, we have been hearing that Dr. Das Gupta is seriously ill. However, I did not for once imagine that the tragedy had progressed this far. The other day, Monu3 wrote to me that his illness was yet to be diagnosed. Directly afterwards, the heart-breaking news arrived. He was sleeping in his cabin in a steamer in Narayanganj when I saw him for the last time.

Yesterday, his condolence meeting was held in Curzon Hall in the University. Dr. Das Gupta had cured a Muslim boy who was suffering from Meningitis. He expressed his gratefulness in words that were not only worth hearing but also appropriate for the occasion. He ended up crying. I have never witnessed such a scene.

This is a disaster for your family. Calcutta has been the chosen area of work for most of you, distancing you from Dacca for some time. It appears now that your family’s attachment with Dacca is finally over.

Little else remains to be written. It is not hard to surmise the state of your minds. Please accept sincere condolences from my wife and me. And do please convey them to Monu.

Yours,

Parimal Ray

To Pankaj Kumar Das Gupta
Ballygunge, Calcutta

Here is the scanned Bengali version of the letter, written, as can be seen, using Dacca University stationery.

Merely a week prior to this, Professor Ray had written yet another letter using similar stationery.

Department of Economics
University of Dacca
Ramna, Dacca

16 November, 1938

Dear Ponku-babu,

We have had no news from you since you left for Calcutta with Dr. Das Gupta. The entire faculty of Dacca University, including us, are deeply concerned about him. All manner of news concerning him arrive everyday, but they do not appear to be dependable. You are doubtlessly preoccupied with his condition. Nonetheless, we shall be endlessly relieved if you could spare a bit of your precious time to write to us about him and the nature of treatment he is undergoing.

I am writing this letter not only on our own behalf, but on behalf also of a large number of professors who are Dr. Das Gupta’s friends. Needless to say, we will spend our time in apprehension till hearing back from you.

Yours,

Parimal Ray

To Pankaj Kumar Das Gupta
Ballygunge, Calcutta

A scanned version of the original Bengali letter resembled the previous one.

How the End Arrived — Word of Mouth

When I was a schoolboy, my mother told me about the man once in a while. She saw him for the first time when she was wedded to one of his half-brothers in Calcutta in 1935. She had travelled to Dacca with the joint-family she had been so absorbed into. I do not think she lived in Dacca for too long, for her husband (i.e. my father) had set up practice in Calcutta as a Dental Surgeon (with a DDS degree from the University of Pennsylvania). The man was seriously ill when she saw him next in Calcutta in 1938, where he was brought over for treatment. He never made it back to Dacca.

My mother was full of respect for Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta and, like everyone else who spoke about the man, considered him to be one of the kindest human beings she had come across, bordering on saintliness. Although a son from my grandfather’s first marriage, he had turned into a father figure for his much younger step-brothers and sisters. He took charge of the family after my grandfather died and the family members looked up to him for every kind of help conceivable, including psychological and financial support.

Apart from being involved in successful private practice, he was attached to Dacca University from its very inception in 1921 as a Medical Officer. As the letters above tell us in poignant terms, he was a much honoured doctor in Dacca, whose death wrapped up the city in a pall of gloom. At the time he was struck by an unknown disease, my mother heard that he would come back home from work and retire into his room where he sat in a chair unwilling to speak or even eat his meals. No one knew what was ailing him, though to start with, the few family members who still lived in Dacca in his close vicinity (except possibly for one mentioned below) did not think there was any major problem to worry about. The doctors who saw him held similar opinion, but as matters grew worse, he was unable to even walk. The attending doctors advised that it was necessary to make him walk. A nephew, the son of his eldest half-sister, had lamented to me many years later, that being a young man at the time, he was assigned the task of forcing the doctor to walk, while, with whatever strength he had left in him, he kept telling his people that the doctors had not diagnosed his condition correctly. No one listened to his weak protests of course, till realisation dawned that something was seriously wrong with the man. There was one person, however, who was an exception and believed that the illness was not to be taken lightly. He was related to the family through his marriage with the youngest half-sister of Sudhir Kumar. This person, as his daughters have heard from him, had gone to visit the ailing man as he lay in a semi-comatic state in his bed and asked him if he could recall some incident or the other. In reply, the dying man had said that he didn’t have the strength to remember anything at all. (This youngest half-sister had received scholarly recognition and was a highly respected professor in a well-known college in Dacca to begin with and then later in Calcutta. She too died at an early age.)

When realisation finally dawned, Sudhir Kumar was transferred hastily to Calcutta, which required a steamer ride across the Padma river those days (from Narayanganj to Goaland) and it was in this steamer that Professor Parimal Ray had seen him for the last time as he had said in his letter. In Calcutta, the family moved to a rented home in Rashbehari Avenue, Ballygunge in 1938. It was here that the best doctors available at the time examined him, but medical science had not progressed enough to pronounce a judgement on the nature of the affliction. The prognosis therefore went from bad to worse till he finally succumbed to what is suspected today as brain cancer.

Since he was a much loved man, the entire family broke down in sorrow and, as I was told by my mother, the step-brothers and sisters who were present could not hold back their tears. They cried inconsolably over their loss.

Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta — An Introduction

Dr. Das Gupta’s full name was Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta and he was the second son of Kamala Nath Das Gupta from his first marriage. Kamala Nath retired as a Judge from the Small Cause Court, Dacca and Munshiganj and was the recipient of a Rai Bahadur4 title conferred by the British Government a few years after King George V attended the Delhi Durbar5 following coronation.

Around the time Kamala Nath was bestowed the title, he had retired from service and his family lived in the Wari area of Dacca. The exact address of his residence was 37 Rankin Street. People aware of Dacca’s history believe that Rankin Street was a posh locality of the town. It does not enjoy that status any longer, though the house exists even today wearing a battered appearance. Here is a photograph of the house from 1971, before it began to run down.

37 Rankin Street in 1971 — Photograph: Courtesy Abhijit Dasgupta

The house should have been built during early twentieth century, but, as we shall see later, a question hangs over the precise year of its construction.6

Records of the award Kamala Nath received (as well as the two letters we started off with) were retrieved from a “magpie’s nest” maintained by his son Monu from the second marriage. The nest in question consists of trunksful of history, a good deal of which his son Abhijit Dasgupta and daughter-in-law Sarbari Dasgupta7 have managed to salvage. We will refer to some of these documents and objects as we proceed.

To begin with, there is a certificate and a medal that Kamala Nath received when he was awarded the Rai Bahadur title.

Rai Bahadur Certificate Awarded to Kamala Nath Das in 1916
Front and Back of the Rai Bahadur Medal awarded to Kamala Nath Das

The certificate, it will be noted refers to Kamala Nath Das Gupta as Kamala Nath Das. The reason for this could well be that it was common practice to shorten the family name Das Gupta to a monosyllabic Das, or sometimes, as we shall find out later, to a disyllabic Gupta. As far as Das went, the matter could have a connection with the Hindu caste system. The way Das was spelt in Bengali left room for yet another Das spelt differently. Kamala Nath was a Vaidya by caste and while the English spelling could not reveal his caste, the Bengali spelling most certainly did. This was probably a matter of social importance, for Vaidyas write the Das as দাশ in Bengali, while non-Vaidyas write it as দাস। Even if the quaint custom has little relevance these days, at the time Kamala Nath lived, দাশ should have earned him respect as a so-called high caste individual.

As noted, Kamala Nath had married twice. The second wife, Soudamini, arrived after the first wife had passed away. By his first marriage, Kamala Nath had three sons and a daughter. Male dominated society ensured that the names of the wife and the daughter were soon devoured by the tides of time. The sons’ names survived of course. They were Satish Chandra Das Gupta, Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta and Suresh Chandra Das Gupta, in that order.

Soudamini gave birth to ten children, or at least ten children that did not die in their infancy8. These were five daughters and five sons (Ponku and Monu, whom we met earlier, being two of the sons). Unlike the case of the wife and the daughter from the first marriage, the daughters whom Soudamini showed the light of day had names that many of the existing members of the family have not yet forgotten. Circumstantial evidence suggests a “Snow White tale” that the children from the second marriage were treated better than the ones from the first. This could well have been the reason why the eldest son from the first marriage, Satish Chandra, left home pretty early in life and to the best of our knowledge distanced himself from the family till his last days. He had children though, and grandchildren, who helped re-establish links of a sort with the existing stock of Soudamini’s progeny.

Satish Chandra’s youngest full-brother, Suresh Chandra, was a bachelor and a school teacher. Unlike Satish Chandra, however, he came back to the family from time to time and maintained connections with both branches till his own end arrived. He too was known for his kindness towards all and sundry and this included his half-brothers and sisters. Nonetheless, and to the best of our understanding, he did not hold too high an opinion of Kamala Nath’s second family. He was a strict disciplinarian and committed himself to a life of celibacy. His life style was austere, particularly so when it came to his attire. There were few in the family that had not been admonished by him for their sartorial excesses. One recalls him pulling up a young niece (daughter of the youngest half-sister mentioned earlier) for wearing sandals that did not cover her feet completely. Footwear was meant to keep one’s feet clean he had observed, a purpose that the strings of a sandal could not accomplish. Instead of wearing sandals therefore, he advised her to tie pieces of pasteboard to the bottom of her feet with the help of thread when she went out to public places. The man, therefore, did not lack a sense of humour, though he was better known for his fits of temper. Despite his cleanly habits, he contacted cholera in old age. Even though it did not kill him, his legs were paralysed as a result.

Sudhir Kumar, the second brother, was a darling to his half-brothers. The letters we had read at the beginning of this narrative were addressed (as we saw) to one such half-brother (Ponku) and mentioned yet another (Monu) when Sudhir Kumar was undertaking his final journey. It appears that these two and the remaining half brothers in Calcutta were taking all the care they could of Sudhir Kumar when he was terminally ill. It is not known if Satish Chandra or Suresh Chandra were present near his death bed.

Sudhir Kumar — Search Initiated

Sudhir Kumar as we know was a doctor by profession and had received his MD degree in USA. This piece of information constituted oral history for the family. However, not a single person who sang about his achievements is alive now to vouch for the veracity of the Sudhir Kumar lore. Fortunately though, someone or the other had heard and remembered that he had a connection with St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Guesswork suggested that if such a connection did exist it should have been towards the early part of the twentieth century.

With this folk tale in hand, I contacted St. Francis Hospital in the hope that its archives might throw some light on the man. The result of the search was disappointing, for here is an excerpt from the email it produced.9

“In the fall of 2002, St. Francis Medical Center, in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, was sold to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System. A new Children’s Hospital has replaced the 137 year-old St. Francis facility, founded and owned by The Sisters of St. Francis of Millvale.”

Though frustrating, the information pointed in the direction of University of Pittsburgh. I approached the Vice Dean at the time, Dr. Ann E. Thompson, but her searches did not shed much light either. To quote her,

“I have not been able to find anything new except that I learned that records of St. Francis Hospital seem to be kept in two places:
St. Francis Hospital Records—a small group are at Heinz History Center: click here for the finding aid to their collection. 
Other records for the hospital have been maintained by the Religious Order of Sisters that ran the hospital.  They are: the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Neumann Communities — https://sosf.org/our-history/
The first one at the Heinz History Center seems to be very recent and probably not helpful.  But the other one just might be helpful.  Perhaps if you connect with them, they can find him.”

Back to square one appeared to be the content of the last message, but a new possibility suggested itself in the meantime. There were Indian doctors who did travel abroad in search of higher degrees around early nineteenth century. (They do so even today.) The chosen destinations at the time were almost invariably UK and Europe and not the USA. A particularly famous one among these doctors was Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy. This brilliant graduate from the Calcutta Medical College (CMC) went to England in search of the FRCS and MRCP degrees. His records are worth recalling.10,11

“Intending to enroll himself at St Bartholomew’s Hospital to pursue postgraduate study in medicine, Bidhan set sail for Britain in February 1909 with only ₹ 1200. However, the Dean of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital was reluctant to accept an Asian student and rejected Bidhan’s application. Roy did not lose heart but kept submitting his application again and again till the Dean, after 30 admission requests, admitted Bidhan to the college. Bidhan completed his postgraduation in just two years and three months, and in May 1911 accomplished the rare feat of becoming a member of the Royal College of Physicians and a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons simultaneously. He returned home from the UK in 1911.”

Since it would have been more natural for Sudhir Kumar to go to England at the time (before setting sail for USA), the British Medical Association was approached. Despite their sincere attempts, no medical student named Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta could be located in UK in the early twenties. In the meantime, an important and helpful document surfaced. This was the Flexner Committee Report published in 1910.12

“The Flexner Report is a book-length landmark report of medical education in the United States and Canada, written by Abraham Flexner and published in 1910 under the aegis of the Carnegie Foundation. Many aspects of the present-day American medical profession stem from the Flexner Report and its aftermath.
The Report (also called Carnegie Foundation Bulletin Number Four) called on American medical schools to enact higher admission and graduation standards, and to adhere strictly to the protocols of mainstream science in their teaching and research. The report talked about the need for revamping and centralising medical institutions. Many American medical schools fell short of the standard advocated in the Flexner Report and, subsequent to its publication, nearly half of such schools merged or were closed outright.”

The Flexner report was highly critical of the state of medical education in the USA at the time. According to some accounts, many of the schools did not require more than a high school degree to admit students. Most medical schools were profit seekers, who handed out a degree in exchange for substantial sums of money. They did not even have a regular faculty. Teachers were borrowed from other institutions. The Flexner Report put a stop to this practice. But the report was helpful in my pursuit, since it suggested (given especially Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy’s experience) that Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta could have found it easier to study medicine in USA rather than in the UK. This was a hypothesis worth exploring and two questions needed to be asked in this connection. First, when did he reach USA, if in fact he did go there. Secondly, which American school did he enter? These were impossibly difficult questions to answer, but at the same time the challenges were far too interesting to ignore.

When Did Sudhir Das Gupta Land in America?

Since medical schools had no record of him, I decided to try out an alternative strategy. Could one study, I asked myself, passenger lists of ships arriving in that country? If so, where could these be found? After several attempts, the search led to the website ancestry.com13 and success reared its head for the first time. The site informed that a passenger ship named Mauretania had arrived in New York (from Liverpool) on October 17, 1913 and among its list of passengers was a man called Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta. He was described as a student who had come from Dacca, India. His residential address though was not 37 Rankin Street. It was 35 Rankin Street instead. Clerical mistake could have accounted for this. But it also suggested the possibility that Kamala Nath Das Gupta had moved into his new house after 1913 and that he lived in rented accommodation nearby to keep watch over the construction work of his own house. Another possibility that cannot be ruled out is that the house was not fully completed by 1913 and some of the family members lived in rented accommodation nearby. Of course, these are unverifiable hypotheses, but there is little doubt about the date of Sudhir Kumar’s arrival in USA. The following two documents tell us a great deal about his landing and the ship that took him there. (The eighteenth person in the passenger list was Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta.)

Passenger list for Sudhir Kumar’s ship
Mauretania — the ship in which Sudhir Kumar travelled to USA

The Medical School Sudhir Kumar Graduated From

The information about his arrival kept my hopes alive, but it left the second question wide open. Where did he complete his medical degree? There were endlessly many schools, most of which Flexner didn’t approve of. Which one did Sudhir Kumar walk into under such circumstances?

This question led me back to the University of Pittsburgh once again and this time the person who took charge of communication was Małgorzata Fort (Ph.D, Head of Digital Resources Development, Health Sciences Library System, Falk Library of the Health Sciences, University of Pittsburgh). The lady signed off as Gosia and that’s the way I shall refer to her. Gosia was a goldmine of information. She carried out a search that must have been backbreaking and finally came out with a bagful of information about Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta’s medical education in USA.

To start with, she found out that Sudhir Kumar’s MD degree was awarded by the American College of Medicine and Surgery, Chicago, Illinois (The Medical College Key Table assigned it the code III 22). She also sent me a photo of the school from the distant past.

Gosia wrote that this college was swallowed up by Loyola University in 1917 as a result of the Flexner Report. She found out further that Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta was listed in the American Medical Directory for 1916 (5th ed.), 1918 (6th ed.) and 1921 (7th ed.) as “Das Gupta, S. K.; intern Evangelical Deaconess Hospital, Chicago.” In other words, after graduating from the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery, Sudhir Kumar completed his internship at the Evangelical Deaconess Hospital, Chicago. It is not clear to me if this was the same hospital as the German Evangelical Deaconess Hospital, Chicago, but a source14 says that the German Evangelical Deaconess Hospital was later named simply Evangelical Hospital. Most likely, the following picture shows the hospital in question.

A matter of some concern needs to be addressed now. According to Gosia’s information, Sudhir Kumar completed his MD degree in 1914. And, as we have noted already, he had arrived in USA in 1913. How can a person complete his MD in a single year? However unsatisfactory the American medical school system might have been at the time, it is highly unlikely that a foreigner could complete his MD in as short a period as a single year.

Unverifiable Hypotheses

The backward journey in search of the origins of Sudhir Kumar’s life had hit a stumbling block. If any documented answer existed, it had to be found either in England (since the ship in which Sudhir Kumar travelled to USA had sailed from Liverpool), or in India. The British Medical Association had already told me that no Indian medical student around that time had a name that was even vaguely similar. India therefore turned out to be the only possible alternative.

The part of Eastern (undivided) British India that Sudhir Kumar had come from had a number of medical schools. Of these, the most well-known, was the CMC (which still retains that name).15 Apart from this, there were two more institutions in Calcutta. One of these was the Calcutta School of Medicine (which was established in 1886 and whose name changed to Carmichael College in 1918). The institution grew into the now famous R.G. Kar Medical College.16,17 The other institution was the Sealdah Municipal Hospital, which started in 1864 in response to pressures generated by the Sepoy Mutiny.18 In 1884, it was renamed the Campbell Medical School. The school transformed to Campbell Medical College in 1894. Independent India renamed it Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College19 and it is a busy hospital in Calcutta today. Apart from these and closer to Sudhir Kumar’s home was the Mitford Hospital20 (probably known as Mitford School earlier) that grew into Sir Salimullah Medical College in 1962. The institution is located now in Bangladesh.

Some of these institutions offered medical education using Bengali as the medium of instruction, to help students who found it difficult to follow lectures in English. What sort of degrees or diplomas did they offer? To quote Uma Dasgupta.21

“The licentiate degree22 would be conferred on anyone who passed the examination after having studied for five years in any recognised school of medicine. The MB degree required the same prior qualification and the same duration of study, but the curriculum was larger. For an MD degree, the degree of BA was a prior necessity, while a practice of two years was necessary after getting the LMS. … The minimum qualification for admission to the Calcutta Medical College was raised from Entrance to First Arts (FA) in 1873.”

Dasgupta does not mention if the qualification for admission was raised in other medical schools too. Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, whom we came across earlier was both an MB and MD from CMC. He was born in 1882 and, as we will discover later, was five years older than Sudhir Kumar. Records in India and Bangladesh were vacuous, as was the case for the search carried out by the British Medical Association. This failure forced upon me a hypothesis that Sudhir Kumar was an LMF or an LMS (mentioned as the licentiate degree by Uma Dasgupta) from an Indian institution of the sort described above. It is also quite likely that the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery allowed the credits from the five year LMF/LMS course to be transferred. As a result, Sudhir Kumar entered that school as a senior student and completed the MD degree in a year’s time23. This was a hypothesis that was at least logically consistent.

The Question of Age – More Hypotheses

How old was Sudhir Kumar when he arrived in America? The question is easy to answer. The passengers’ list above describes him as a 26 years old man. However, the list is not too legible and I had to try and double check this fact from yet another source. Before I did so, I needed to face up to an obvious question. He appeared to have entered the American medical school at a somewhat advanced age. Given our hypothesis, he had five years of medical training in India before he walked into the Chicago school. This need not mean of course that he started his medical studies in India at the age of twenty one. Let us take into consideration the fact that he needed to complete the equivalent of junior and high school before embarking on his medical pursuit.

Uma Dasgupta’s work suggests that he went for the Entrance Examination and not the FA. With an FA, he could have sought admission in CMC and gone on further for the MB degree. The conclusion that he didn’t try out the MB route in CMC follows from both Dasgupta’s observations as well as the Flexner Report, which suggest that the MB in India was a more difficult degree to pursue than the MD in USA. And we do know that he had gone for the latter. CMC is ruled out, but both Carmichael and Campbell existed at the time. He could have studied in these schools. (For reasons to be explained further on, I doubt that he had studied in Mitford School in Dacca.)

I assume that he had to pass the school leaving Entrance examination and the average age at which people cleared it was about sixteen. He arrived in the USA at the age of twenty six. If he did an LMF degree, he would have been twenty one by the time he finished it. His arrival in USA was separated from this event by five years, a period during which he had the opportunity to practise as an LMF doctor. It is natural to assume therefore that he was a practising LMF doctor for five years. Such an occupation would have ensured that he had saved a reasonable sum from his earnings, which he had used to finance his journey and his one year study at the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery, USA. I have pointed out that medical schooling was expensive in the USA at the time. Add to this the travel expense. Something of this nature had almost surely happened, for long deceased family members were known to mention that Sudhir Kumar was a self-made man. Besides, as already noted, it is reasonable to suppose that his father was building his house at the time Sudhir Kumar travelled to distant shores. Even if he wished to help his son, he may not have been in a strong financial position to do so.

Quite apart from this, Kamala Nath had fourteen children from his two marriages, of whom six were daughters. Marrying them off and arranging for the sons’ schooling could have been a difficult monetary proposal. Whatever his salary was, after meeting these obligations, he may not have had substantial savings left. On top of this, he had a house to build. Around this time and even later, people were known to build their residences after retirement, since this is when they could lay their hands on a pile of money which they were awarded as retirement benefits. In endlessly many cases, they did not survive too long after retirement and their property was enjoyed by their children. We know (from his Rai Bahadur certificate) that in 1916 Kamala Nath was a retired judge. Retirement age ought to have been sixty or so and he was beyond sixty years when he received his title. Sixty was old age at the time. So, he could have been an old man with a new house when Sudhir Kumar was pursuing medical studies in the USA.

So much for the hypotheses.

Kamala Nath (probably post retirement) and Soudamini

Back to Documents

In the context of the American Medical Dictionary, Gosia Fort had drawn my attention to the possibility “… that they were just slow in updating their records …” She did this to clear up a mystery that had materialised in the meantime. While searching ancestry.com, new pieces of information revealed themselves. An important one was the fact that Sudhir Kumar had been drafted by the American Army in 1917. Fortunately, the record was very clear as the registration card reveals.

Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta’s World War 1 Draft Registration Card

The card is dated June 5, 1917 and it states that he was a Resident Physician at St. Francis Hospital, Pittsburgh, Alleghany County, Pennsylvania. His date of birth, the card says, was December 30, 1887 which is my additional support that he was twenty six years old when he arrived in America in 1913, the age stated in the passenger list of Mauretania also. (This established further that he was five years younger than Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy.) We saw, when we started this story, that he passed away in the year 1938. He was 51 years old therefore when he finally departed. On the other hand, the Rai Bahadur certificate confirms that his father was at least sixty, if not more, when his life came to an end. Sudhir Kumar was seriously ill when he left the world. His father by contrast died probably of old age.24 What was he doing when his father expired? We shall need to face up to this question soon enough.

Gosia drew my attention to another interesting question. As we know, she had found Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta listed in the American Medical Directory for 1916 (5th ed.), 1918 (6th ed.) and 1921 (7th ed.) as “Das Gupta, S. K.; intern Evangelical Deaconess Hospital, Chicago.” The draft record shows on the other hand that Sudhir Kumar was in Pittsburgh in 1917. Not only so, he was already attached to the St. Francis Hospital in the capacity of a Resident Physician during that year. Gosia pointed out the discrepancy and this is why she mentioned the possibility that the American Medical Dictionary could have been slow in updating records. According to this Dictionary, Sudhir Kumar was in Chicago in 1917, which he certainly was not.

Gosia sent me yet another interesting story. This was a clipping dated January 1, 1919 from the Pittsburg Gazette Times. The image is poor, but it is not difficult to see that “Dr. S.K. Gupta, an intern at St. Francis Hospital, testified that Bassett’s bill at that institution was unpaid”. (The word “intern” could probably mean a “Resident Physician”.) Ira R. Bassett was a blind pool operator and may well have been associated with what is described as money laundering in the present day world.

Dr. S. K. Gupta testifies on behalf of St. Francis Hospital in 1919

Was Dr. S.K. Gupta the same person as Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta? This is not exactly a million dollar question now. We saw earlier that his father’s name had left out the “Gupta” part. Couldn’t it be possible that the son found it more convenient to drop “Das”? If not, what are the chances that two Indians with names so similar (“Gupta” in particular and the initials “S.K.”) worked in St. Francis Hospital, Pittsburgh at the same time in early twentieth century? Fortunately, the problem was resolved by the magpie’s nest research. Abhijit found out that among the things Sudhir Kumar left behind him was a pocket watch with telltale initials engraved on its lid. Here is that watch.

Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta’s pocket watch — (SKG)

He had begun to sign his name as Sudhir Kumar Gupta for reasons unknown to us. Some more details about the watch itself were found along with it.

The watch had been manufactured around 1915, but we do not know when Sudhir Kumar had actually purchased it.

The draft records call him a Das Gupta of course, which is not surprising. A draft card needs to be as accurate as possible, somewhat like a passport. We still do not know when exactly he changed from Das Gupta to Gupta. But change he did as we saw earlier in the newspaper clipping from 1919.

Dr. Sudhir Kumar (Das) Gupta was working in St. Francis Hospital in 1919 and we had also found out towards the beginning of this story that the Hospital changed in 2002. How much change had taken place in the hospital’s looks? A postcard from 1955 (the photo immediately below) and the photo following it reveal that metamorphosis.

St. Francis Hospital 1955 – postcard photo
St. Francis Hospital now

We are reasonably sure now what the man was doing till 1919. But the American story doesn’t end here. Before we chase him further, we wish to know what he looked like in his salad days. Probably both these photographs, and certainly the one on the left, date back to his days in America. No man wore western hats in India at the time, which means that the photo on the left originated in the USA.

Dr. Sudhir K. (Das) Gupta’s salad days — circa 1915-1920

A handsome “young” doctor living a bachelor’s life! We discovered from ancestry.com that the case was not exactly so. He had ceased to be a bachelor on December 24, 1919. Cook County, Illinois Marriage indexes show the details.

The second column from the left lists the family names alphabetically and Sudhir S. Gupta is not hard to discover. He had married a lady called Rose S. Liberty on December 24, 1919. The marriage took place in Illinois. So he had travelled from Pittsburg, Alleghany, Pennsylvania to Cook County, back to Chicago for the wedding.

Do we have their wedding photograph? No. Do we have a photograph of the husband and wife standing or sitting next to each other? No. However, family sources say such a photo did exist, but even the magpie collection has lost track of it. Abhijit and his wife Sarbari have searched for that photo (which Abhijit at least had seen in his younger days) but they ended up in failure. Family members belonging to Dr. Sudhir K (Das) Gupta’s generation had been heard to mention that photo. Stories had circulated in the family that Sudhir Kumar did have a link with an American girl. What nobody had known till now (as far as I can make out) was the fact that he had actually wedded an American lady. And we even know her name, thanks to ancestry.com. She was Rose S. Liberty.

Rose S. Liberty ??

The fact that the photo above had emerged out of Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta’s belongings suggests that the lady wearing a saree and holding on to the young boy was Rose. Abhijit believes she was the same lady he had seen in the lost photograph with Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta. In that photograph too, she had worn a saree. Who the other woman in the photograph could have been is anybody’s guess. Regarding the boy, we can hypothesise a little more. Ancestry.com says that Edmond Arthur Liberty, son of Rose Liberty (the middle initial S missing), was drafted for the Second World War during 1940 through 1947. He was then aged 23. It also states that he was born on July 26, 1917 in Spokane, Washington, USA. If Edmond’s mother was the same Rose that Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta married, it is unlikely that he is the boy in the photograph. He could not have been more than five years old around 1919-21, which, as we shall see, is when Sudhir Kumar left USA. The boy in the photograph looks older. On the other hand, if Rose S. Liberty did have a son, he was probably the product of an earlier marriage and we have therefore little or no information about him.  

The Last Document from USA

The final document Gosia Fort sent me revealed without a doubt the monumental tragedy of Sudhir Kumar’s life. I had always suspected that such a tragedy existed, but was never too sure of its nature, especially since the man himself had never been heard to have complained. An excerpt from Gosia’s mail along with the documents she attached to it clarified any doubt that could have existed.

“Sudhir Kumar Gupta, M.D. joined the Department of Psychiatry for the academic year 1919/1920 and 1920/1921. He was listed as a demonstrator in psychiatry. He taught courses in psychiatry clinics at St. Francis Hospital to fourth year students of the School of Medicine together with Prof. William Kemble Walker and Dr. Cornelius Collins Wholey. Next academic year 1921/1922 someone else took his position, but it means that he was still in Pittsburgh in the spring of 1921. I am attaching excerpts from the School of Medicine announcements published in 1920. It includes titles page, Calendar page, page with Demonstrators listing, and page with Psychiatry course description.”

Here are the attachments she sent along with the mail.

The fact that he came back to India for some reason and never went back is common knowledge in the family. But Gosia’s mail showed that he had probably returned to India in the year 1921, exactly a hundred years ago from now. He had a regular job in St. Francis Hospital when he came back. He had given it up and never gone back. He had a wife too whom he could not have seen again. And as far as Indian society went, he remained a “bachelor” till the end of his life! In India, his connection with an American girl assumed the guise of a “hush hush” business. Rose had to vanish, or else Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta couldn’t be prevented from returning back to USA. The doctor accepted the sentence with a “(w)ith bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness, …”

Life in India

A new university was established in Dacca (now Dhaka) in July, 1921 and family members who are no longer alive had often told us that he joined the University as its first Medical Officer. There was no medical school in the university at the time and he had therefore accepted a demotion of sorts from the position of an instructor (Demonstrator) in an American school. My efforts to track him back in Dacca University produced a blank. I was even told that records relating to him would have existed had he been a faculty member, which he was not. He was, we were told, merely an administrative officer whose records have not been preserved. If we go back to the letters with which this story began, we will see that he was in fact a highly respected doctor, who even practised medicine and cured people suffering from the then (and probably even now) incurable diseases. However, the Dhaka of today has forgotten him and not a single person approached could help. A reason why they no longer remember him may be accounted for by the fact that most of Sudhir Kumar’s step-brothers had migrated early to Calcutta, long before the partitioning of the country into India and Pakistan in 1947. Sudhir Kumar, however, as far as we know, continued in Dacca, as did his younger sibling Suresh Chandra along with their step mother Soudamini and her mentally disturbed youngest son. It was not exactly a flourishing family anymore, without much of a public presence.

I was now left with no other alternative but to engage myself further in intelligent guesswork and search around for rumours that still circulate in the family. It could well be that around the time Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta wedded Rose Liberty and began teaching in St. Francis Hospital, his father Kamala Nath was nearing his end. I also think that Kamala Nath did not have enough savings to bequeath to his wife and children. The conclusion is based on the fact that I believe he had built his exquisite house with the help of his retirement benefits. Even if he had married off most of his daughters, one married daughter had been sent back to her father’s home by the family she rightfully belonged to. (There are stories explaining this event, mostly related to a husband who tortured her when she was pregnant with her only baby. This baby was born and raised in her maternal grandfather’s house. As far as one can make out, she had never seen her father. This girl later married the famous singer and film music director S. D. Burman and their son was yet another musical genius R. D. Burman.) One more daughter, the youngest, was still to be married off. And there were of course the sons from the second marriage who were too young to choose a career on their own. The family needed material help to hold on to its social status and the story goes that Sudhir Kumar received an urgent telegram from Dacca, sent by his step-mother, that his father was very ill. There was dire need for him to return back “home”. I have mentioned earlier that the youngest (scholarly) daughter’s husband told his children how ill Sudhir Kumar was in Dacca. This gentleman was known to be outspoken. His daughters, who are my first cousins, inform me now that their father had told them further that the telegram contained little truth in it. The father may have aged in natural course, but he was not exactly ill enough for Sudhir Kumar to be rushed back to Dacca from Pittsburgh. He was brought back to take charge of the family which had begun to find it difficult to maintain the lifestyle it was accustomed to in the exclusive Rankin Street area. Or so it would seem.

He retraced his steps back to Dacca in response to the telegram. No one knows how long his father lived thereafter. Sudhir Kumar probably had a bit of savings from the USA. But he also had a father and a step-mother with her litter of children. Since Satish Chandra maintained a distance and Suresh Chandra was a school teacher at best, the responsibility of looking after Kamala Nath’s second family was almost surely transferred over to Sudhir Kumar. No one knows what he told Rose before leaving USA, but it is natural to suppose that he had decided to come back to her within a short period after making arrangements for the family in Dacca. And then, very likely, he got more and more entangled with family affairs back home. One imagines him requesting Rose to wait a little longer and then a little bit more, till the days added up to weeks, the weeks to months and the months to years and then decades. Both Rose and he realised that their two year old family life (1919-1921) had died in its infancy. In the meantime, knowingly or unknowingly, his younger half-siblings and step-mother kept him imprisoned in their self-motivated, hugging embrace, somewhat in the manner of a python crushing its prey to appease its hunger. And he, in turn, accepted without resistance the sentence pronounced on him, unable to resolve a Buridan’s ass paradox.

The gentleman who questioned the truth of the telegraphic message, had apparently also pointed out that Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta had purchased an automobile, which was used more by members of his family than him. Some say they have seen a photograph of the man standing in front of his car. And Mandira Bhattacharya’s account of 37 Rankin Street speaks of a garage in the house. This garage was probably where Sudhir Kumar or his family members parked the car. I have personally not seen the photograph of the car, but I do remember seeing a picture of him riding a bicycle to work.

Ancestry.com could not produce information about Rose Liberty’s life, but what Sudhir Kumar was doing is amply clear. He had become simultaneously a father figure and a sacrificial lamb for the entire family. He even managed to send two of his step-brothers to England and USA respectively for higher education, at his own expense.

Sudhir Kumar never married again. Almost certainly Rose and he didn’t divorce, or else he would not have carried his photograph with her, the one that cannot be traced anymore. It appears that he was forced to give up everything that he had built on his own. Though it is not known if anyone was interested in seeing him married, the fact is that he never showed an interest in that possibility himself. He remained faithful to Rose in his own absurd fashion. What Rose was doing in the meantime has so far not come to light. It is reasonable to assume that his younger sibling Suresh Chandra understood the nature of Sudhir Kumar’s misfortune and decided never to raise a family of his own. We have a photograph of Suresh Chandra in his old age.

Suresh Chandra Das Gupta – circa 1967 – 1970

Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta ensured to the best of his ability that he carried out his “responsibilities.” He couldn’t do much about the youngest half-brother, who was psychologically unstable.25 He paid for the education of the brothers (including ones whom he sent abroad). He arranged for the marriage of these two as well as that of the youngest half-sister. However, Suresh Chandra, his youngest full sibling and he himself avoided being struck by Cupid’s arrow.

How long had Sudhir Kumar lived in America.? From the records we have unearthed, it would seem that the period was 1913 through 1921, around eight years or so. I have heard from my father though that the man was away in USA for eighteen years! How can this be explained? We have argued that prior to his journey to the USA, he should have spent ten years in India, pursing his LMF degree and then practising as an LMF doctor. This takes us back to 1903. Given that he was born in 1887, he was sixteen years old in 1903. This is the age at which one cleared the Entrance examination. The figures therefore match.

My father was at most a year old child in 1903. He did not know Sudhir Kumar at all till the latter materialised in Dacca from USA in 1921, i.e. eighteen years later. My father, in other words, saw Sudhir Kumar for the first time in his life when he was an eighteen years old boy himself. As a teenager, he may have heard that he had a half-brother who lived in USA. The fact that he had never met Sudhir Kumar in Dacca till he was himself eighteen years old means that Sudhir Kumar was away from Dacca those many years. All his half-siblings had probably heard that Sudhir Kumar had left home when they were either too small or not even born. No one at home, it would seem, kept track of Sudhir Kumar’s whereabouts for so long at least as he was in India, but away from Dacca. We have of course tried to construct a plausible story about him since the time he left Dacca. The fact that he was away from Dacca goes to prove that he could not have studied medicine in Mitford School. But his absence from Dacca did not mean that he was residing in the USA He could have followed his elder brother’s steps to Calcutta. One does not know if they had lived in Calcutta together. How his medical education was financed in Calcutta is yet another unknown. He might have been engaged in part time work. Nobody in Dacca appeared to have cared till he travelled to USA. As a doctor in USA, he turned overnight from a nobody to an indispensable person for the family. From a forsaken person to someone commanding enormous importance. And this happened because the family was apprehending a not too distant rumble of hard times.

We conclude then that both Satish Kumar and Sudhir Kumar left home early. The first one didn’t quite come back, the second did under unenviable circumstances. The third brother Suresh Kumar’s story is unclear.

Epilogue

Little else remains to be told of this tragic and perhaps sordid Sudhir Kumar tale. The reader though can still be introduced to the earliest photograph that exists of the person. We know of course that he was born in 1887. But we have said little else about his life towards the end of the nineteenth century. Fortunately, Abhijit found a photograph of the child Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta along with his parents. This looks like a studio photograph of Kamala Nath’s first family. It is the only photograph that we have of his first wife and daughter. The daughter was a baby and sat on her father’s lap. It looks like a photo taken in a studio during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Historian Partha Chatterjee says such studio photography was quite uncommon in India at the time, except probably in cities. Dacca could well be one such place. We see the three brothers. The eldest, Satish Chandra stands behind his parents. Sudhir Kumar is seated on a rug on the floor at the front. Suresh Chandra stands on the left, holding on to the chair his father sat on. And their mother (with her unknown name) sits next to her husband. The photograph emerged out of the magpie collection. It had remained hidden inside a bunch of Suresh Chandra’s letters. Suresh Chandra was clearly fond of this photograph of the family that, in his childhood, he knew as his own. The children, as can be seen, were dressed up by the studio in a somewhat fairy tale style in Persian clothing of the period. Having people photographed in such costume could well have been the custom followed at the time.

Kamala Nath Das (Gupta)’s first family – circa 1893-94

Sudhir Kumar resembles a six or seven year boy in the photograph. Given that he was born in 1887, the photograph could have been taken around 1893-1894. The little boy had his dreams. Probably he was still reading fairy tales. His fairy tale world was not destined to last too long. The same was the case of his three siblings. They were soon going to lose their mother and ushered into a totally new world. A world of rude realities that children are not supposed to be able to cope up with all that easily.

But Sudhir Kumar’s case was destined to be somewhat different. Fate, as in Greek tragedy, had chosen him for its favourite hero. A new mother arrived and with her arrived the step brothers and sisters. Fate had reserved for him the role of their custodian. He didn’t know that this was the direction in which life was driving him. He turned into a doctor and a faculty member in an American school of medicine. He built a little shelter of his own, but he lost it and his mate somewhat in the manner in which he lost his childhood and his mother. It was decreed as it were that his spells of happiness would be brief at best. And then, as though he had not suffered enough mentally, he had to silently writhe in physical pain and die young. Leaving out his own mother and his youngest half-sister, he lived the shortest life among the members of the family.

Going back to the letter we began with, it is natural to wonder if the Muslim boy who expressed his gratitude to the memory of the departed doctor was the only one in the then Dacca to have benefited from him. There must have been many others who had received his healing touch. But not a single researcher who has worked on personalities who had enriched the Dacca of yore was able to discover this man. The man had been taken advantage of by the family that he had brought succour to, sacrificing a great deal in the process. As if this weren’t enough, it appears that society at large too chose to forget that such a kind and helpful doctor ever existed. His tragedy was truly colossal.

_______

Footnotes
1. Well-known economist, literateur and politician Ashok Mitra’s book of memoirs “Apila Chapila” introduces Parimal Ray as the best-known professor in the Economics Department of Dacca University. Apart from being the famous writer and poet Buddhadev Bose’s friend, he was associated with the literary magazine, Pragati, published by Buddhdev Bose. He taught Ashok Mitra for two years or so before leaving for Delhi, where he taught in Ramjas College and the IAS Training School. He left for New York with a UN assignment and did not live too long. More information about Professor Parimal Ray can be found in Ashok Mitra’s book. I am indebted to the eminent historian Partha Chatterjee for drawing my attention to the book.#goback1

2. Pankaj Kumar Das Gupta (Ponku) was Dr. Sudhir Das Gupta’s half-brother. He was an LIC employee in later life.#goback1

3. Monu was Nirmal Kumar Das Gupta, another half-brother of Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta. He was a lawyer by profession. A great deal of material on which the present semi-historical document depends were found in his collection by his son Abhijit Dasgupta and daughter-in-law Sarbari Dasgupta. Abhijit is a known personality in the television news world and Sarbari taught in City College, Kolkata.#goback1

4. Rai Bahadur #goback2

5. Delhi Durbar #goback2

6. Mandira Bhattacharya, who lived in this house from the mid-1940’s has given a detailed as well as a loving description of the building in her book “Dhakar Smriti o Dr. Nandi” written in Bengali. The book was published by Prathama Prakashan in 2018. (Translated, the title of the book is “Memories of Dhaka and Dr. Nandi”.) Dr. Manmatha Nandi, her much respected physician father whom Dhaka has still not forgotten, had purchased the house from the Kamala Nath Das Gupta’s descendants. At a later stage in his life, Dr. Nandi had probably sold away the property and moved over to Jalpaiguri, India.#goback2

7. Dasgupta is what the family name has changed into over time.#goback2

8. Given the time period we are discussing, the possibility of a child death or two cannot be ruled out. Infant mortality is still a problem in India and other emerging economies.#goback2

9. St. Francis Hospital.#goback3

10. Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy.#goback3

11. Dr. Bidhan Ray was one of the doctors who examined Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta towards the end of the latter’s life. From the letters quoted at the beginning of this journey, it would appear that even this brilliant man failed to diagnose what had ailed Dr. Das Gupta.#goback3

12. Flexner Report. #goback3

13. Ancestory. #goback4

14. Evangelical Hospital. #goback5

15. Calcutta Medical College #goback6

16. R.G. Kar Medical College and Hospital #goback6

17. Dr. Manmatha Nandi, whom we have already come across had passed out of Carmichael College with flying colours according to his daughter Mandira’s account in “Dhakar Smriti o Dr. Nandi”.#goback6

18. Sepoy Mutiny #goback6

19. Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital #goback6

20. Mitford Hospital #goback6

21. Dasgupta, Uma (2010). Science and Modern India: An Institutional History, C. 1784-1947. Pearson#goback6

22. The licentiate degree was referred to as LMS (Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery) or LMF (Licentiate of Medical Faculty).#goback6

23. This appeared to have been common custom in USA till as late as 1935. The person whom we came across in our post The Father, the Son and the **** Ghost had completed a four year DEDP course in Paris before being awarded the DDS degree in dentistry by the University of Pennsylvania within the course of a year. At that time, it should have taken around four to five years to obtain the DDS degree in USA.#goback6

24. If this was not the case, at least word of mouth accounts of the manner in which he breathed his last would have existed. His children, at least the ones from the second marriage, were not particularly well-known for their taciturnity. Especially the one described in The Father, the Son and the **** Ghost. #goback7

25. A wedding was arranged for this brother as well, but Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta had ceased to exist by then. This is not the place to relate that story or even find out the reason that necessitated it. However, here is a photograph of that event. The photo was shot on the terrace of 37 Rankin Street. It shows some of the brothers and sisters from Kamala Nath’s second marriage, including his second wife (the old lady in the centre). Suresh Chandra does not appear in this photograph. In fact, all the children from Kamala Nath’s first marriage are missing.#goback8

Group photograph from wedding of the youngest half-brother — circa 1946

Ha!

Soon after lunch today, my wife declared that she was leaving me. Not for good, but for an unspecified period of time. We were still sitting in a restaurant in Puri and she passed on her purse to me asking me to take good care of its contents till she was back. Amongst other things, I knew that she kept her mobile phone inside the purse.

“Why won’t you carry your cell phone with you?” asked I in alarm. “I can’t get in touch with you if you are late. “

“They don’t allow mobile phones there,” she replied and got up to leave.

“Hey look,” said I “who’s ‘they’ darling and where’s ‘there’?”

“I am going to the Jagannath Temple. They have their rules. Amongst other things no leather goods are allowed inside and no mobile phones either. Anyway I am getting late. This is the best time to visit. Because it’s Jagannath’s lunch time and there are few people around. If I can make it on time, I might manage to get a ‘darshan’.

“I can come with you too. Why are you leaving me with a woman’s purse? People will get ideas to see me carrying a purse you know”

“Well, just go back to the hotel room and wait there she said. The room is less than five minutes from here. You can bear the embarrassment for a short time at least. For my sake, do it. This is your once in a lifetime chance to do something for my sake. Try and recall the last occasion you did anything just for me.”

“Look,” said I, “I am even willing to accompany you to the temple. You are doing me wrong.”

“Oh no, they won’t let you inside the temple. You will have to wait outside on the street with my purse much longer that way.”

“Why won’t they allow me into the temple?”

“They are very strict. Non-Hindus are forbidden entry.”

“Since when did I turn non-Hindu?” I asked severely concerned.

“How do I know? Probably since the day you were born. Anyone who cares to study you will know. And then there will be trouble. Look, I am getting late. I want to be present there at the opportune moment.”

“But please don’t leave me in a sea of mystery. Have I been excommunicated? But why?”

“Hindus cannot be excommunicated. You need to convert. But how can you covert from Hinduism if you are not a Hindu in the first place. Stop bothering me. Ask yourself what you have ever done that would qualify you as a Hindu.”

“Oh come on, I married you with the holy fire as witness.”

“Ha!” she exclaimed.

“I put the vermillion mark on the parting on your beautiful hair.”

“Ha!” she repeated with passion. “You are not just a non-Hindu. You are a non-anything. If you are anything at all, you are a lizard in a bathroom.”

“Bathroom!” I exclaimed. By now she had hailed an auto. As she was boarding it, I asked her, “Why don’t they let you carry the cell phone inside? Are they worried that you would call up Jagannath-ji when he was enjoying his post lunch siesta?”

“See, see, see …! Did you hear what you said? You call yourself a Hindu. Ha!”

This last ‘ha’ was pretty lethal, but before I could recover from its attack, the auto had disappeared. So I mournfully retraced my steps to the hotel room and turned on the laptop to check my mail. May be I managed to join company with Shri Jagannath, for I woke up with a start when someone knocked on the door from outside.

I opened the door and there she was. Triumph radiated from all over her person. Full of excitement she told me how she had managed to enter the sanctum sanctorum and watch Shri Jagannath standing only a few feet away. “The Pandas were most helpful. They said I was super lucky. Normally there is a huge crowd, but I got the opportunity to stand there all alone and watch him in his infinite glory.”

“You sure you didn’t call him up and make an appointment this morning,” I asked.

“Ha!” she said again, producing in me the distinct impression that she was slowly forgetting spoken language. ‘Ha’ appeared to be the single entity with which her vocabulary was bursting at the seams.

It was late afternoon and I felt like taking a stroll on the beach. “I am going out for a walk, OK?” I told her.

“Yes do so. You’ll soon forget how to walk if you sit in front of the computer much longer.” She was forgetting to talk and I to walk. I guess we were even.

With her reassuring message about my walking abilities, she bid me farewell. I went out and stood deeply engrossed in thought staring at a camel on the sea shore. The camel too reciprocated. It’s owner watched me suspiciously though until I asked him if he would mind if I took a picture of the camel.

“No problem,” said he. “Just climb up the ladder and sit on its back. I will take a picture with you sitting on the camel.”

“Oh no,” I replied in alarm. “The camel alone will do.”

The man looked bored. “Oh, go ahead.” I began clicking from different angles and was quite engrossed in the work when I realized that a general atmosphere of panic had developed in the meantime. People appeared to be running helter-skelter for their dear lives and I alone was blissfully occupied in taking photographs of a camel that did not belong to the beach in the first place.

I looked up and tried to digest the event in progress. No it was not a tsunami, but something pretty close. Right behind me two bulls had arrived from nowhere it seemed and started to bully one another. Locked horns and all. I stood petrified. No cow was visible in the horizon, so I had no idea what they were fighting over. What would happen next appeared to be a stochastic event, probably captured by what statisticians call a white noise.

As I anticipated, one of the bulls won the match and the loser lost not only the fight but its temper also. It looked around and saw me standing in the empty sea beach. And took to chasing me.

Now I don’t know if any of you have been chased by a frustrated bull on a sea beach. You need to be well-trained  to run at all at the age of ninety eight. And you need to be immensely skilled to be able to run through wet sand pursued by a mighty bull. And recall that I had, according to my wife, almost forgotten to walk!

Well, when situations demand, even non-walkers turn into sprinters. So I survived with a few minor bruises. As I was running for dear life, I remembered that it was Yama who was supposed to ride a bull. (Some believe it was a buffalo he rode, but authentic evidence surrounding the matter appears to be lacking. Till this day, no one has agreed to take the witness stand after being interviewed by Yama.)  And since only a few hours ago my wife had told me that I was hopelessly unreligious, I conjured up a vision that had been aptly captured by a talented economist friend of mine, now teaching in New Zealand. He drew this picture for a love story written jointly by us in Bengali rhyme. I am using the picture to help you imagine my state this evening.

Drawing by Amal Sanyal

I reached my hotel panting. My wife was surprised to find me in a somewhat roughened up condition.

“What happened? Did someone beat you up?”

“No. A female Yama chased me sitting on a bull. ”

“What rubbish!”

“No, no rubbish at all. I saw Yama riding a bull just a few minutes ago. The way you saw Jagannath. From close quarters you know. Only Yama assumed a female shape. I wondered if it was you …”

“Ha!” she ha–ed back in disdain.

অবৈধ — অণুগল্প

অরুণিমা — ফোন করেছিলাম সেদিন, ধরলে না … ওয়াট্‌স অ্যাপ মেসেজেরও জবাব এল না।

পলাশ – ফোন? শুনতে পাই নি তো? ওয়াট্‌স অ্যাপটাও বোধহয় কাজ করছিল না। কী জানি।

অরুণিমা — ও আধ ঘণ্টার জন্য বাড়ি থেকে বেরিয়েছিল। সেই সুযোগে ফোন করলাম … তুমি ধরলে না। আজও একটু পরেই ফিরবে।

পলাশ – আমাকে তুমি সারা জীবনে আধ ঘণ্টার বেশি সময় দিলে না। আচ্ছা উনি আমাকে এত অপছন্দ করেন কেন? আমি তো ওনার সঙ্গে শত্রুতা করি নি। করার ইচ্ছেও নেই। একেবারেই নেই। কেমন করে শত্রুতা করা যায় তাও বুঝতে পারি না।  

অরুণিমা — হ্যাঁ … জানি … কিন্তু রেগে যায়।

পলাশ – কেন? কী বলেন?

অরুণিমা — ঐইই … অচেনা পুরুষটা তোমার সঙ্গে যোগাযোগ করে কেন? লোকটার মতলব খারাপ।

পলাশ — বললেই পার … অচেনা পুরুষ না, চেনা বুড়ো … কলেজে চিনতাম।

অরুণিমা — বিশ্বাস করে না।

পলাশ — সত্যি কথাটা বলে দাও। তোমাকে লাইন দিয়েছিলাম … তুমি ভাগিয়ে দিয়েছিলে … খুশি হবেন।

অরুণিমা — রোজ আমার ফোন খুলে দেখে তোমার ফোন এসেছিল কীনা।

পলাশ — বাপরে …

অরুণিমা — হি হি হি …

পলাশ — তোমার সঙ্গে যোগাযোগ না করলেই পারতাম। মানুষ ভুল করে ফেলে … জয়ন্ত তোমার ঠিকানাটা দিল, আমিও আমার নতুন বইখানা তোমাকে পাঠিয়ে দিলাম। ফোন কিন্তু করি নি।

অরুণিমা — ওয়াট্‌স অ্যাপ তো করেছিলে। এমন কথাও বলেছিলে যে আমাকে কোনোদিন ভুলতে পার নি।

পলাশ – বলেছিলাম বটে। কথাটা সত্যি।

অরুণিমা – সত্যি কথা? আমি তো এখানেই ছিলাম। যোগাযোগ কর নি কেন?

পলাশ — সে কী? তুমি তো আমাকে ফুটিয়ে দিয়েছিলে। সারা জীবনে একদিনই কথা বলেছ সামনাসামনি। মানে পাশাপাশি। তারপর আমি কলেজের গেটে ভিখিরির মত দাঁড়িয়ে থাকতাম, আর তুমি তোমার বান্ধবী পরিবেষ্টিত হয়ে পাত্তা না দিয়ে চলে যেতে। ঐ মহিলা ব্যূহ ভেদ করে তোমার সঙ্গে কথা বলা অসম্ভব করে দিয়েছিলে।

অরুণিমা – নইলে কী করতাম? দৌড়ে গিয়ে তোমায় … যাক গিয়ে … এবার বোধহয় ফোন রাখতে হবে। ওর ফেরার সময় হয়েছে …

পলাশ — তুমি আমার দিকে ফিরেও তাকাও নি কখনও। সঙ্গত কারণেই নিশ্চয়ই। যতদিনে বিদেশ থেকে ফিরলাম, নিশ্চয়ই বিয়ে করে সংসার করছ। ছেলে মেয়েও উপহার দিয়েছ। এদিকে উনি আমি পরস্পরকে চোখেও দেখি নি। তাই রাগটা রহস্যময়।  

অরুণিমা — হয়তো তাই। অত শত বিশ্লেষণ করে না।  

পলাশ – মিছিমিছি ওনার বিরক্তির কারণ হয়ে গেলাম। আচ্ছা, তুমিই বা আমাকে ফোন কর কেন? আমাদের কি কোনো সম্পর্ক হওয়া আর সম্ভব? অবশ্য শব্দ তরঙ্গের আদান প্রদানটাও একটা সম্পর্ক হতে পারে।  

অরুণিমা – হবেও বা …  

পলাশ – আর তারপর যদি শব্দের ছোঁয়াটা অন্য কোনো ছোঁয়ায় পরিণত হয়? তাও কি সম্ভব?  তুমি থাক নৈহাটিতে, আমি উলুবেড়িয়ায়। হাতে ছোঁয়া তো কোনো ভাবেই সম্ভব না। শব্দ দিয়ে যদি তোমায় ছুঁয়ে ফেলি … হয়তো তাই ভাবেন …

অরুণিমা — কী রকম?

পলাশ — মন ছোঁয়া যায় না? তার সঙ্গে দেহের তো সম্পর্কই নেই। উনি বুদ্ধিমান লোক সন্দেহ নেই। ইংরেজিতে sensitive …

অরুণিমা – বলছ?  

পলাশ – প্রেমের জন্য দেহের চেয়ে মনের প্রয়োজন বেশি …  

অরুণিমা – তাই বোধহয় …

পলাশ – তাই বোধহয়? তার মানে তুমি কি এতকাল পরে আমায় ভালবাসতে পারবে? যখন তোমার সঙ্গে শারীরিক নৈকট্য থাকা সম্ভব ছিল, তখন কিন্তু ভালবাস নি। এখন তো কেবল মনটাই বাকি আছে।

অরুণিমা – তুমিই কি ভালবেসেছিলে? একদিন আধ ঘণ্টা কথা বলে কি ভালবাসা যায়? বললাম তো, আমি তো ছিলাম, তুমি কী করছিলে?

পলাশ – আমিও বললাম তো, তোমার তাড়া খাচ্ছিলাম …

অরুণিমা — এবার ছাড়ি …

পলাশ — আমার বয়েস আশি – তোমারও কাছাকাছি। তোমাকে দেখে চিনতেও পারব না। ওনাকে এটা বলেছ তো?

অরুণিমা — বেল বেজেছে। ছাড়লাম।

পলাশ — দাঁড়াও, দাঁড়াও — তুমি আমাকে আদৌ ফোন কর কেন? সেটা তো বলবে?

অরুণিমা – ছাড়লাম।  

ফোনটা এখন বোবা। পঞ্চাশ বছর আগের শরতের রাঙা একটা দুপুর পলাশের মনে পড়ে। ছবিটা পুরোন হল না। সে চোখ বুজে শোনে কে যেন ফিসফিস করে বলছে — শরীর? শরীর? তোমার মন নাই কুসুম?  

Memories — Haiku


            lovely moon shining --
        behind rain soaked rolling clouds --
            lingers on her face ...

দুখী

শোকাতুর প্রভাকর আপ্তে
পারে নি সে কোনোদিনই মাপতে
ঔচ্চে সে ঢের
নাকি বেশি তার বেড়
কেঁদে মরে প্রভাকর আপ্তে।

Thalia Story

Thalia the Greek
I met by the creek
On a faraway noon
And fell into a swoon.
So I failed alas to teller
That I never ever weller
Loved a girl
Other than
She.
Thus ended
The story of
Thalia ‘n
Me.

The Horse

Full of pride, horse astride
I wished to set off on a mission
To steal for me the prettiest bride
That had ever crossed one’s vision
Unfortunately though, I din’t quite know
How to ride a horse
And what was worse, I’d lil to show
On how to saddle’t by fawrce
I decided still to carry on
And climbed up on a stool
To mount my shiny stallion
Only fate turned out too crool
No sooner had I seated
Than my steed began to nettle
And soon alas I quite defeated
Sustained a fall most faytell
I howled aloud with torn sinews
And the horse ran away contempted
It vanished where I wish I knews
With my search for the prettiest bride ended.

______
Style inspired by Ogden Nash
















শ্রাদ্ধ

গরফায় এসে রোজ কালীপদ আঢ্য

নিজের নিজেই তিনি করে যান শ্রাদ্ধ

তারপরে ডাক ছেড়ে

শ্রাদ্ধের ভোজ সেরে

কেঁদে কন কোথা ওরে হরিপদ আঢ্য?

বিপিন বাবুর রহস্য -অণুগল্প


“নিজস্ত্রী সলজ্জা হইবে এবং পরস্ত্রী নির্লজ্জা হইবে ইহাই রসজ্ঞজনের কাম্য।” একথা বিপিন বাবু বহুকাল আগেই জেনেছিলেন পরশুরামের ‘হনুমানের স্বপ্ন’ পড়ে। কিন্তু ‘কার্যকালে সমুৎপন্নে’ প্রায় সমস্ত পরস্ত্রীই কিষ্কিন্ধ্যার নিকটবর্তী কিচ্চট দেশের দুর্বিনীতা বানরী রাজকন্যা চিলিম্পার মত ব্যবহার করে তাঁকে বিদায় দিলেন। তিনি বুঝতে পারলেন যে পরশুরাম প্রদর্শিত কাম্য বস্তু সহজলভ্য নয়। চিলিম্পার হাতে সুগ্রীব প্রবল ভাবে নিগৃহিত হয়েছিলেন, যদিও হনুমানের সঙ্গে চিলিম্পা পেরে ওঠেন নি। বিপিন বাবু হনুমান সম তেজস্বী না হওয়ায় প্রথমটা বিশেষ কিছুই করে উঠতে পারলেন না। তবে শারীরিক বল না থাকলেও তাঁর অল্পস্বল্প বুদ্ধিবল ছিল। সেই বুদ্ধি প্রয়োগ করে এবং কিঞ্চিৎ তন্ত্র মন্ত্রের সাহায্যে বিপিন বাবু কিছুদিন পর থেকে নিজস্ত্রীকেই নির্লজ্জা পরস্ত্রীজ্ঞানে দেখতে শুরু করলেন। এই পথে চলে তিনি অভূতপূর্ব পরোঢ়া প্রেম উপভোগ করতে সক্ষম হয়েছিলেন বলে শোনা যায়। অবশ্য বিপিন বাবু স্বর্গারোহণ করার আগে নিজমুখে এই রহস্য কাহিনি বলে যাওয়ার ইচ্ছা প্রকাশ করেন নি। এদিকে তাঁর নিজ বা মতান্তরে পরস্ত্রীও কাউকে কোনও সাক্ষাৎকার দিতে নারাজ। দুর্ভাগ্যক্রমে গবেষকরা এ ব্যাপারে নিশ্চিত কোনও সিদ্ধান্তে উপনীত হতে পারছেন না।

Utpal Dutt and the Magician: A Tale of Two Performers ©

Utpal Dutt, before he turned into a professional actor commanding pan India fame, was a school teacher. No run of the mill teacher he was of course. Any student exposed to his teaching skills in the early days of South Point High School in Kolkata will probably affirm this. Not unlike a magician, he could make his students fall into a trance. The medium of instruction in the school was English and he taught us English literature. His English accent was immaculately British, which we admired to no end. But coming from middle class Bengali homes, as most of us did, we were fully aware of our own inabilities to pick up his brand of English. Despite Utpal Dutt’s sincere efforts, our limitations lingered.

Dutt was an amateur stage actor as well at the time and the founder of the Little Theatre Group (that later changed to People’s Little Theatre). In the interest of the students, his acting group often performed Bengali versions of Shakespeare’s plays in the school premises, translated by Dutt himself. These included plays such as Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and others. Thus, he was equally at ease with Bengali and English, reserving English for the classrooms and Bengali for the stage.

He was, however, not the only entertainer we were exposed to. On special occasions, the school had its students entertained by other varieties of performing artists too. This story concerns one of those, a stage magician, and his interactions with Utpal Dutt. The school had no auditorium at the time and shows were held on make shift stages. One such was rigged up for the magician in the manner of Dutt’s own stages and the students congregated there to watch him. Utpal Dutt simply loved the students and, as was his wont, he too joined the festivity.

The magician appeared to be earning a living of sorts from his skills, while Dutt was probably dreaming at the time about a professional acting career. In a way therefore, the two were not equals as far as their earnings from stagecraft went. Of course, the magician was not particularly well-known in his profession either and was almost certainly struggling to establish himself. He never found the success he sought, or so it would seem, for his name hasn’t survived the tides of time. No Houdini, or Sorcar, or Gilli Gilli Gogia Pasha he was therefore, or even remotely managed to turn into. As noted, Utpal Dutt too was then relatively unknown and neither performer knew the other personally. However, Dutt was destined to climb great heights in later life. The magician, therefore, had little idea about the great actor to be that he was facing on that long lost evening.

The conjurer kept us enthralled with a series of tricks and, encouraged by Dutt, we clapped thunderously at the end of each item presented. Quite unexpectedly though, one of those tricks caught Utpal Dutt on the wrong foot. The trick appears in hindsight to have been reserved for Utpal Dutt and him alone. It commenced with the magician stepping down from the stage and approaching the audience with a pack of playing cards. His eyes searched for the right face and landed quite randomly on Utpal Dutt. He confronted Dutt, requesting him politely to choose a card from the pack and reveal it to everyone present, except the magician himself. Dutt did what he was told and then replaced the card in the pack. The pack was shuffled thoroughly and the magician went over to the stage to place it inside an empty drinking glass on the top of a table. Following this, he turned back towards the audience looking directly at Utpal Dutt. And it was then that the fun began.

“Now Sir, why don’t you request your card not to hide inside the pack any longer?” began the magician. “After all, I am not acquainted with it. Can’t you ask it to show us its face?” The magician was speaking mostly in Bengali, which the students understood quite well. Utpal Dutt was visibly embarrassed by the idea of speaking to his chosen card, though the actor in him could well have done a great job of such conversation. However, he avoided that course of action and remained seated amongst the audience and simply smiled sheepishly.

The magician though insisted doggedly, which is when the English language invaded all of a sudden, for Dutt was asked to address his card in English with two simple words — “get up”. Simple yes, for he could well have used more sophisticated expressions like “reveal thyself” or, “come out of hiding, will you?” But it is unlikely that his acquaintance with the English language went that far. Worse, he was as ignorant of his own shortcomings vis-a-vis that language, as he was of Dutt’s outstanding command over it. Dutt could hardly refuse, for a room full of students were staring at him expectantly. He followed the magician’s advice therefore and came out with his version of the “get up” order in what sounded like trochaic meter, delivered in an Othello like booming bass.

Like any other magician, the one facing us possessed rudimentary acting skills too. He used them to his advantage now and almost collapsed on the stage in feigned fear as soon as he heard Dutt’s voice. Then, wearing a scandalised look on his face, he reprimanded Utpal Dutt in chaste Bengali. “If you scare the card this way, how will it even manage to peep out of the pack? Please don’t scold it so loudly, will you? Be polite, be nice to it? You are forcing it to remain in hiding!”

Then he went on to demonstrate the way he needed our teacher to utter the two fateful words. What he said sounded like a request alright and a passionate one at that. But there was a problem. The “get up” he insisted upon was somewhat songful in nature and spoken in a manner that made the words sound more Bengali than English. His tone bore a close resemblance to that of a doting Bengali mother urging her pampered brat of a child not to throw garbage on the heads of unwary passersby.

In short, his English was as far removed from Dutt’s as a tropical rain forest could have been from the Sahara desert. We, who were closely familiar with Utpal Dutt’s diction roared out in laughter, though our own pronunciation was doubtlessly far closer to the magician’s than Dutt’s. Yet the goings on appeared hilarious in our eyes, because we doubted that the teacher could reproduce the magician’s version of “get up” without distorting what he taught in his classes. The magician of course little knew why the students were laughing. He merely believed I suppose that he had excelled in his job. He responded with a wide grin.

Now, more than half a century later, I cannot fail to note a paradox of sorts surrounding the event. There is little doubt that no native English speaker could have understood what the magician had said to Utpal Dutt. Any such person would probably have expressed his incomprehension by merely scratching his head. But the thunderous manner in which we reacted amounted to jeering at the magician for his lack of speech wise sophistication. Quite obviously, we had developed into a bunch of snobs under Utpal Dutt’s tutelage, even though he had never intended things to happen that way. The paradox lay in the fact that Utpal Dutt ended up directing many a stage actor to speak the magician’s “Bengalified” English, purely for its comic effect. He must have spoken it himself too if the role demanded it. But on this day, Dutt the teacher refused to imitate the magician’s accent, which he could have done effortlessly. In fact, if he did imitate, his students would have gone back home with the impression that he had demeaned the man, not for being an incompetent magician, but for a reason totally unrelated to his trade. His fault would lie in the fact that he spoke his mother tongue more freely than he spoke a foreign language.

None of us would have reacted the way we did if the magician could have come up with Utpal Dutt’s English. This, however, was quite impossible, for the school he had gone to had almost surely not employed a Shakespearean actor to teach English. Unlike the students he was facing, he had probably studied in a school where English was not the medium of instruction. Most likely, even his English teacher taught the language in Bengali. Consequently, he was not familiar with the niceties of English accent. He could not speak King’s English. Nor could we.

Utpal Dutt probably realised the nature of the paradox the way I myself do today, having graduated out of my teenage asininity. Instead of mimicking the magician, he spoke the words in the manner of a boy soprano. Moreover, in doing so, he demonstrated his magnificent acting skill as far as voice control went. We heard open mouthed the range his voice could travel, from bass to treble. This did not quite satisfy the magician’s demand though, but he decided it was not as fearsome as Othello preparing to strangle Desdemona. He did not insist any further and much to everyone’s delight, the card in question did in fact climb out of the pack by itself and allowed us to verify its identity. Utpal Dutt came out with an earth shattering bravo and the rest of us clapped cheerfully.

A few days later, some of us came across the magician one more time. He was waiting near the school office, to collect his compensation for the performance. We began to chat with him and he turned out to be a friendly person. As all young people do on such occasions, we started enquiring about the secrets of his tricks. He told us vaguely about the art of magic and ended up at one point asking us to request the school authorities to start a magic course for the students. This was certainly unheard of. No school on earth meant for general studies offered a course in sorcery. Even at that young age, we concluded that the man needed a steady income, an income that would let him peacefully concentrate on his art without having to depend on a hand to mouth existence, which is what his stray performances ensured at best. We knew that his proposal was absurd and the matter ended there.

The magician’s own future could not have been clearly visible to him either, but one suspects that he in his turn too had undergone a professional change sooner or later and vanished, unlike Mr. Dutt, inside a dark alley of anonymity. Yet, one cannot help wondering, what could have happened if he was offered a chance to teach some subject or the other, say Geography or Mathematics, in the school for a regular salary. He would then have enjoyed the position of Utpal Dutt himself. Dutt was able to pursue his dream career, which could not have produced a dependable flow of income at that stage of his life. This did not pose a problem, probably on account of his regular income as a teacher of the English language. The magician’s academic qualifications did not measure up to Dutt’s, or even lesser teachers’ in the school. Not merely the school where Dutt taught, but elsewhere too. Besides, he was probably not inclined towards teaching either. He must have ended up in some lonely island or the other to earn his living and whatever work this might have involved, it could not have lent much support to his performer’s hopes. Also, who can tell? Unlike Utpal Dutt, who was able to walk miles to achieve his dream, the magician may not have possessed the grit to struggle against the unavoidable odds faced by a creative artist. It is a cruel world we live in.