When the writer, Leela Majumdar, entered her centenary year in 2009, the anglophone world was also celebrating the centenary of W.H. Auden. Since then, I have not been able to rid my mind of the idea of writing about them together. Their informing presences in my life have somehow always been outside its academic, or overtly cerebral, activities. I read them both, not to ‘study’ them, but out of an inner compulsion, as one must listen to music. Hence they have – in very distinct ways, yet also together – shaped, and continue to shape, my experience of love and loss, laughter and anxiety, and the various processes of reconstituting these experiences in language, spoken and written, Bengali and English. Leela Majumdar and Auden may have been born within a year of each other, and then accidentally made kindred spirits through the vagaries of one’s reading, but how does one bring together a chain-smoking homosexual and a runaway Brahmika in an essay? Just when I began to wonder about this, my eyes fell on a few lines in Auden’s 1965 foreword to the Collected Poems. “Some poems which I wrote and, unfortunately, published,” Auden says, “I have thrown out because they were dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring.” My heart leapt at these words, for they seemed to articulate much more than just editorial principles. They also conveyed for me, to the last sharpness, the values by which Leela Majumdar also lived and wrote: never to falter in one’s honesty, to be generally good-mannered (which does not mean being invariably polite), and, perhaps most importantly, never to bore others. These were the practical elements, repeatedly spelt out in Pakdondi and in her lectures on Abanindranath Tagore, into which the ideal combination of “shugobhir shatota” [profound truthfulness] and “sharashata” [humorousness; to be full of the juice or sap of life] that she saw embodied in Abanindranath and Sukumar Ray were translated in her everyday life and writing.
“In art as in life,” Auden goes on to say in his foreword, “bad manners, not to be confused with a deliberate intention to cause offence, are the consequence of an over-concern with one’s own ego and a lack of consideration for (and knowledge of) others.” This effortless and unaffected movement between art and life, and the tacit link between being considerate to others and wanting to know them on their own terms, are, again, crucial to how Leela Majumdar deals with her own disapproval of self-absorption and egotism. Her great rift with her father was her own, unwavering emotional and ethical stand, maintained until his death, against what she clearly understood and described as a case of terrible manners, in exactly Auden’s sense. She saw her father’s capacity for violent, blinding rage as the inability to understand, and therefore to respect and allow, somebody else’s innermost feelings: oporer moner kotha tini kolponao korte parten na [he couldn’t even imagine the inner, unspoken words/feelings of others]. It is important that she remembers her father’s fundamental lack of empathy as a failure of imagination. This kolponashoktir obhab [absence of imagination] – King Lear’s great fault – not only permanently estranges a daughter from her father but also, at a less tragic level, renders deeply problematic the relationship between teacher and student, as Leela Majumdar observed several times during her stint as a teacher in Santiniketan. But it was her father, she unstintingly acknowledges in Pakdondi, who had taught her to value independence, so that shwakeeota – being oneself and doing one’s own thing – becomes a keyword in her writing, bridging fiction, autobiography and criticism, a quality by which one lives, writes and judges other writers and readers. Yet her father could never bring himself to allow her to live out this shwakeeota on her own terms, even if that happened to be something as personal as choosing to marry a Hindu man. The forging of independence is, therefore, an abiding preoccupation in her writing: how does one actually live out the freedoms that one has been taught and encouraged to imagine, and at what cost? This difficult story, exhilarating but often cruel, is intertwined with another one, also implicitly associated with her father: how to remember right, how to make one’s acts of memory fair to others and to oneself. The filial breach at the heart of Pakdondi’s history of happiness and human attachments, the coldness and the detachment that grew as naturally as did the laughter and the fun, are never allowed to invalidate her father’s richly constitutive presence in her childhood and early youth, especially their world of stories (and in particular, the stories of the forest). To not grant him the fact of having laid, firmly and enduringly, the foundations of what she stands on would also amount to letting him snatch away the first 24 years of her life. Hence, the story of achieving independent adulthood – shabalokotto – is inextricable from that of nurturing the fairness and accuracy of the memory. Together, these two processes make up the rigour of her honesty, the teeming inclusiveness of her empathy, the full reach of her imagination – qualities that make her “life-forgiven”.
This compound, “life-forgiven”, is Auden’s. It occurs in a poem which, when read alongside Leela Majumdar’s stories and memoirs, suddenly becomes beautifully resonant. Auden’s elegy, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”, written immediately after Freud’s death in 1939, takes us to the heart of Leela Majumdar’s world of writing for and about children, especially to the role of the adult memory and imagination in confronting, and then transforming, the primal emotions and experiences of childhood. And by this, I do not at all mean that we ought to use Auden’s poem for a Freudian reading of her work. On the contrary, by associating remembered childhoods and the transforming power of memory with Freud, the poem makes us think about and want to understand, often by contrast, Leela Majumdar’s distinctiveness in taking up similar aspects of childhood in order to work out her own myths, fictions and histories, her own shapes and structures, recognitions and resolutions. It is not Freud per se, but what he means to Auden in this memorial that helps me clarify my own response to Leela Majumdar. For Auden, Freud had changed the world
“Simply by looking back with no false regrets;
all he did was to remember
like the old and be honest like children.
He wasn’t clever at all: he merely told
the unhappy Present to recite the Past
like a poetry lesson till sooner
or later it faltered at the line where
long ago the accusations had begun,
and suddenly knew by whom it had been judged,
how rich life had been and how silly,
and was life-forgiven and more humble,
able to approach the Future as a friend
without a wardrobe of excuses, without
a set mask of rectitude or an
embarrassing over-familiar gesture.”
This natural and unsolemn combination of relief and release, humility and hilarity is the result, then, of being made to remember honestly. But it also leads backwards to a more anxious and solitary figure at the centre of the poem, who then becomes the chief beneficiary of the ways in which Freud “quietly surrounds all our habits of growth”. This is “the child, unlucky in his little State,/ some hearth where freedom is excluded,/ a hive whose honey is fear and worry”. But Freud’s “technique of unsettlement” makes this child feel “calmer now and somehow assured of escape,/ while, as they lie in the grass of our neglect,/ so many long-forgotten objects/ revealed by his undiscouraged shining/ are returned to us and made precious again”.
There is a mysterious, almost magical link, which we have all perhaps felt sometimes, between remembering something long-forgotten and finding something given up as lost. Such moments in our everyday life get taken up into inwardly-felt, surreal loops of time, and they gesture glimmeringly at our deepest intimations of loss and recovery. These glimmerings are almost like revelations, or recognitions, but are seldom experienced with a clarity that may be put in words. They complicate, even if for a few seconds, our relationship with the world of things and persons and even animals. And this further complicates how we experience and perceive the relationship between our consciousness and time. These lost and found objects become tokens of history, embodying its continuities and consolations, the assurance that history ‘keeps’ everything for us even if we haven’t been able to get to its hiding places. But at the same time, these objects also stand for the perplexing breaks and discontinuities in the flow of our consciousness in time and in space, the sense that even if we have got something or someone tangibly back, then something equally real, though not as tangible, has been lost or forfeited in the process; some part of that object, or even of ourselves, has become irrecoverable. Henceforth, the anticipation of loss would always run its hidden course underneath our sense of the miracle of recovery. Towards the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when the young lovers wake up at dawn, their nightmare of sexual confusion, indignity and error seems to have passed, and their lost loves restored. Things are the same again, yet not the same. “Demetrius: These things seem small and undistinguishable,/ Like far off mountains turnéd into clouds./Hermia: Methinks I see these things with parted eye,/ When everything seems double./ Helena: So methinks,/ And I have found Demetrius like a jewel,/ Mine own and not mine own./ Demetrius: It seems to me/ That yet we sleep, we dream.”
Restored possession of a coveted, but taken-to-be-lost, object is like a cherished dream or wish come disturbingly true. The value of the object becomes immeasurable, but the sense of our claim to this value becomes radically unstable – “Mine own and not mine own.” And this is often experienced as the outgrowing of an earlier simplicity and innocence, an earlier mode of unthinking proprietorship. It is like a coming of age or shabalokotto that could be either a gradual process or a momentous transformation. Leela Majumdar often refers to this as a kind of work: “shabalika howar kaaj”. And essential to this kaaj [work] are her stories of losing things, “haranor golpo”. In Holde Pakhir Palok, Bogi is puzzled and annoyed by Jhogru’s story of the tiny girl in deep green silk sleeping in an ivory boat, fished out of the river and then lost to it again: “All your stories are stories about losing things, Jhogru, haven’t you ever found anything?” But Jhogru does not answer his question, and quickly changes the topic. From Podipishir Bormi Baksho to Holde Pakhir Palok, and including little stories like “Harano Jinish” [Lost Objects], the mystery, comedy and pathos of losing things (and sometimes finding them again) provide plots, situations or structures of feeling through which to explore a sense of the fullness and richness of life, a sense that everything that is precious, generous or funny about human, animal or natural existence has in its core something precarious, elusive or fragile, which is continually about to be missed or lost and therefore asks to be sought or found over and over again. And each time this compulsive game of losing and finding is played out in our lives, our relationship with the world is reconstituted. It is part of her commitment to the truth of human experience, and of her sense of responsibility towards her younger readers, that this vision is represented in her writing as both a reality principle and a pleasure principle, as profound anxiety as well as unending hilarity. And it must never be sentimentalized or overtly moralized, for that way lie emotional blackmail and sanctimoniousness, the two most serious crimes against children, both associated with a certain kind of Brahmo elegiac and righteous excess, in Leela Majumdar’s scheme of things.
In her introduction to the complete works of Upendrakishore Roychoudhury, Leela Majumdar writes that those who have forgotten their own childhood can never be made to write for children: “It is also not enough to remember just the events, but what had taken place within oneself while they were happening must be retained as well.” This belief in the inseparability of the inward and the circumstantial led Leela Majumdar to write her stories about losing things from, as it were, both ends: we fear losing what we can’t imagine living without, but we also often compulsively long to be lost to others, wishing that we might be able to remove ourselves, perhaps magically, from those who presume that they have us ‘for keeps’. Therefore, our fantasy worlds are constituted by the fear of abandonment, the wish to be abandoned, and the wish to abandon.
In a story like Holde Pakhir Palok, the heartbreak of letting go and the romance of going away are inextricable from each other, and together become the means, at once cruel and enchanting, for confronting Rumu and Bogi with the otherness of other ways of being. Together with Bogi’s unanswered question to Jhogru, “…paoni kokhono kichhu? [have you never got anything?]” (getting and finding have the same word in Bengali), the other central, but essentially unanswerable question in the story is, “Keno Bhulo paliye jaye? [Why does Bhulo run away?]” And is it a coincidence that the dog’s name also means ‘forgetful’? But it is the unanswerability of the story’s central question that necessitates the creation of its supreme fiction: the yellow bird and the transforming power of its feathers. The specific question of why a dog is compelled to flee repeatedly from its human attachments immediately presents before the children the most radical form of otherness, of the unknowable, that their familiar world can provide them with. And this is what animals generally do in Leela Majumdar’s stories, from “Deene Dupure” to Kaag Noy. (Had she read Virginia Woolf’s Flush?) The presence of animals is an integral part of human existence, consciousness and emotions, but even at its most intimate and familiar, even when it compels nothing less than human love, this presence may be encountered as alien and opaque, utterly beyond human comprehension, possession or control. As Jhogru points out to Rumu, would she not have loved Bhulo even if she had known about his running away and the pain that would cause her? And as Rumu herself understands, no human baby can take Bhulo’s place in her heart. So the children, particularly Rumu, are made to learn love’s hardest lesson through their encounter with an animal’s intransigence. In Pakdondi, the terrible, helpless-making otherness of a beloved animal is most painfully confronted when Leela and her family are about to move to Calcutta from Shillong, and the children learn from their mother that they would have to leave their father’s horse, Kalamanik, behind. “I asked, ‘Does he know too? [O-o jaane?]’ Ma turned her face away. I thought that my heart was breaking, there were cramps in my tummy, and my snipped-off tonsils started to ache. Never again did any of us ask about Kalamanik.”
In Holde Pakhir Palok, the yellow feather can also change human beings, giving rise to a whole sequence of feather-touched people and their little stories within the larger story, making room, towards the end, for an astonishingly adult moment. Rumu asks Jhogru why, if he is happy (shukhi), must Bhulo still run away? And Jhogru’s answer confronts Rumu with a truth that is still far beyond her ken: “Who says that the happy do not run away? The happy run away from that happiness itself. Because they do not get to feel pain (dukhho), they wander around looking for pain.” “Dukhho-ke khunje beray” are Jhogru’s words in Bengali, making dukhho sound almost like a human being one spends one’s life seeking. In Pakdondi, leaving home becomes an inevitable and integral part of what Leela Majumdar calls the work of achieving adulthood, although one of the most memorable images in it is that of the children returning from the plains to their warmly lit-up home in the hills. Pakdondi is, as I have said before, a history – perhaps even a unique ‘cultural history’ ‑ of happiness and of familial love, with its cornucopian world of unforgettable human beings, animals, trees, plants, stories, furniture, books, rooms and houses. But even while succumbing to the inexhaustible delights of this history, it is difficult not to feel the sharpening of a contrary, centrifugal compulsion that gets gradually identified with its writer’s will to be herself and to find the clearest and most candid expression for her own sense of this burgeoning selfhood. This compulsion may be worked backwards to the rift with her father, but its most positive manifestations move in the opposite direction, along the path of her growing sense of her own vocation as a writer, and what this did, occasionally, to the other imperatives and identities that she had to take on as an adult and as a woman, and how this sense of a vocation made her look at, and what it made her do with, her own conformism and rootedness, both before and after her marriage.
Intertwined with this contrapuntal strand are two other, fascinating counter-currents, each pulling in odd, often perverse and even tragic directions from the more conventional strands of her life-writing. First, although Pakdondi is a book about a series of wonderfully happy homes, it is also one about a series of houses left behind or tragically dismantled. The latter culminates with the devastating end of 100, Gorpar Road, the untimely death of Sukumar Ray, and the dispersal of the entire house, together with all the cherished people and things in it, including the printing press and publishing house, which had produced the best-loved and most formative books and periodicals in Leela Majumdar’s life. She describes this event as an enchanted castle crumbling and falling right in front of her eyes: “Chokher shamne mayar prashad jhur-jhur kore bhenge porlo.” Secondly, think about the story of Leela Majumdar’s maternal grandfather, Ramkumar Bhattacharya, the man who had initially converted to Brahmoism, and then, immediately after his wife died, left his three very young daughters to fend for themselves, and went away to become a sanyasi [ascetic] after performing his own sraddha [funerary rituals]. As Leela Majumdar’s Boromashi ‑ a sad, cold victim of a loveless childhood – tells her: “Chhoto chhoto teenti meyer jei na ma more gelo, omni tader biliye diye dibbi bhogobanke khunjte chole gelen! [The moment the three little girls lost their mother, how easily he just doled them out and set off to look for god!]” But this man, called Ramananda Bharati after becoming a sanyasi, used to fascinate Leela with his knowledge of Sanskrit (a language she had never learnt), his remarkably modern views, and his incompletely preserved account of how he had walked all the way to Manos Sarovar. Embodying a form of Hinduism that must have been irresistibly alluring to a girl brought up according to the strictest tenets of orthodox Brahmoism, and carrying within his life a mysterious and ruthless act of renunciation, Ramananda Bharati was one of the first people Leela Majumdar had heard of from her earliest years and upon whom the yellow bird must have dropped a veritable shower of feathers. Although he died a few years before she was born, she always felt an intimate kinship with this man. He remains forever associated in her imagination with the majesty and remoteness of the Himalayas, the walk to which had made him turn his back upon the very happiness and love that his grand-daughter would celebrate, elegize and then put in its place, in her own way, as a writer.
For Leela Majumdar, the most important retelling of this familiar, and familial, story of renunciation is Abanindranath’s Nalak, in which the sublimity of Siddhartha’s renunciation is re-enacted, but with a different ending, in the more human pathos of Nalak’s vision of the Buddha’s life. Nalak succumbs to the pull of this vision, leaving his mother to go away as Debalrishi’s apprentice. “Be happy, be free,” [Shukhi haw, mukto haw] the rishi blesses the little boy, before taking him away from his mother for 35 years. Abanindranath’s story ends with a piece of poignant mistiming. All these years, Nalak had waited patiently to get a glimpse of the Buddha in person. A long time has passed and Debalrishi now wants Nalak to go back to his mother.
Nalak is in two minds, but finally sets out from Sarnath on the river for his village. And the Buddha arrives in Sarnath the next day. We last see Nalak approaching his mother’s home and stopping to look at her from a distance as she sits outside her house listening to a beggar’s song, without noticing her son. There is no loving reconciliation between mother and son, only Nalak wondering, while watching his mother, when the Buddha would come to his village and take him away again. It is not difficult to see how Holde Pakhir Palok would not have been possible if Nalak had not been written. This is a happily acknowledged debt, which leaves Leela Majumdar with no misgivings about the originality of her own tale, and about her own autonomy as a writer in relation to Abanindranath. It is Abanindranath ‑ and not Rabindranath ‑ whom she declares to be her ‘presiding genius’, together with, of course, Sukumar Ray. There is, however, an important difference between Nalak and Holde Pakhir Palok. At the centre of Abanindranath’s story is none less than the Buddha himself, whose sublime, but unreachable, presence transforms a child’s relationship with the world. But in Leela Majumdar’s story, the Buddha’s equivalent is just a little yellow feather floating about in a stray dog’s bowl of water. It is Auden again, who understands perfectly, in one of his lectures on Shakespeare, the essence and the point of this lightness: “To be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character. Shakespeare never takes himself too seriously.”
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Aveek Sen is a curator and writer on art, literature, music and society. He was a senior assistant editor (editorial pages) of The Telegraph, Calcutta, where he wrote extensively on photography. He was a Rhodes Scholar at University College, Oxford, where he studied English literature, before going on to teach English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. He is the winner of the 2009 International Center for Photography Infinity Award for Writing on Photography.