5 Dec 2019 – Last Friday, I took Srishti to the annual function of ‘Choopkatha’ at the Rabindra Okakura Bhavan, Salt Lake. Helmed by veteran theatre artist, Dolly Basu, ‘Choopkatha’ is a theatre group that works with differently-abled children – using this art form as a means to develop their communication and confidence. The group also includes other children in their programs and the kids all get to perform together in the annual show. This year, they did a medley of items – children’s nursery rhymes, Sukumar Ray’s “Ha Ja Ba Ra La”, a recitation of Tagore’s poem ‘Puraton Bhritya’ & a dramatization of Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull”. The children performed very well and deservedly got a thundering applause from the audience. At the end, Dolly Basu acknowledged the parents without whose support and participation the program would just not have been possible. Among those mentioned was the compere of the evening, Brototi Dasgupta. One of my dearest friends.
Brototi’s son, Sunny, played the role of ‘hijibijbij’ in “Ha Ja Ba Ra La”. This is his third annual performance with ‘Choopkatha’, and he has enjoyed it more every year. He is very active in sports at his school, La Martiniere for Boys, especially in football, and goes for private coaching in the game twice a week. He revels in this physical exercise. But Brototi is all for the development of a well-rounded personality, and has thus encouraged Sunny to take up chess (in which he already excels) and pursue something creative as well. For the latter, she first tried a 2-year customized course in music (aimed at 4-6 year olds) at the Calcutta School of Music, but it didn’t go down well with him. ‘Choopkatha’, however, has been more rewarding: theatre definitely suits him better; and he has also learnt to be more sympathetic, Brototi tells me, through his interactions with differently-abled children.
This is a new phase in our relationship: this sharing of the experience of motherhood – what our children are doing in school, their interests and passions, the ever new things in their lives. It lends a whole new dimension to a long friendship.
Brototi was first a colleague of mine who soon became a friend and a sister. Just 2 years younger than me, she has always given me the respect due to an elder sister – a “didi” – in our society, even as she shared her most intimate thoughts and feelings uninhibitedly with me, like friends/equals do. It’s a subtle balance that she has effortlessly managed to maintain for 17 years now.
Subtlety is indeed her hallmark – subtlety of thought, of expression. Her other distinguishing characteristic is her depth of feeling. I honestly know very few people who have the emotional depth she has. It stems from her love of literature, no doubt, but also music. She had trained in Rabindrasangeet from the famed music academy, ‘Dakshinee’; and till date continues to learn it from her beloved former teacher, Sumita Ghosh. But there’s also another crucial factor at play here: a spiritual core in her that is averse to anything remotely shallow in word or deed, which compels her to continually see things beneath the skin. She also has this marvelous ability to make the songs she learns/sings touchstones by which to live. In fact, it is this love of song, especially Rabindrasangeet, which has been a special bond between us: we have a secret code of certain songs that are pathways to our pasts, to specific days and special moments we have shared, to our unique joys and sorrows.
When I first met Brototi in 2002 as a tenured faculty at Basantidevi College (BDC), I was struck by her beauty: sharp features, curly hair, glowing skin and a slim figure somewhere added up to that elusive thing we call ‘labonya’ in Bengali. There was also the faint aura of her family background about her, which she was quick to dismiss whenever asked. She was the granddaughter of legendary scholar Subodh Chandra Sengupta, whose books on Shakespeare we mandatorily read during our University years. (I had found his edition of Macbeth, in particular, invaluable during my Part II Hons).
Brototi lived up to her family name – topping in English Honours at Lady Brabourne in her year and securing a first class second in her M.Phil at Calcutta University. When she taught at BDC, she taught part-time in a number of other colleges/institutes as well – Muralidhar Girls College, Vivekananda College for Women & the RKM Institute of Languages. Additionally, she also gave private tuitions to college students at home.
She was just not busy at that time, but maniacally so. I’d found in her routine a determination to leave no hour, no ‘bela’ empty. I’d felt as if she was killing time, killing her weeks rather than living them. Immersing herself in so much teaching that there was no energy left to think at all. Either she wanted to forget something or was running away from something, I’d thought.
There could of course be the other possibility – of the desperate need to earn as much money as possible through part time work to support her family while waiting for a full-time job. But visits to her Ekdalia home and meeting her parents made me realize that that was not the case. Her geologist father had by then comfortably retired from the Central Fuel Research Institute and the family had settled down in their ancestral home in Kolkata, after spending most of Brototi’s (and her elder brother’s) growing years in undivided Bihar (Ranchi, Dhanbad) and Assam (Jorhat).
She was at BDC for only 2 years. But what a great time we had! We actually interacted more outside the college than within its premises, spending a lot of time in and around Gariahat – walking back together from college to the Ekdalia auto stand (this was the mainstay of our friendship), shopping in Pantaloons, buying other sundry stuff from pavement hawkers, eating out, watching a film or two. Being with her was always a joy, but some days stand out – a Saraswati Puja spent together, a long relaxed (what we call our) “macaroni and cheese afternoon” at my home during a summer break, my B’day in 2004, ‘Shasti’ of the same year… She actually remembers the details much more than I do, startling me sometimes with the memory of things I’d said or done & what they’d meant to her.
She married in January 2005. And then went to live in Bangalore, the city her husband, Debanjan – an electrical engineer trained at JU & IIT Delhi – had made his own since 1996. She started teaching full time at Mount Carmel soon after relocating to Bangalore and led a very happy life there for a couple of years. I was witness to it in October 2005, when, while staying with my sister (who also worked there) for a week, I visited Brototi’s home. On a rain-drenched day. The idea was to spend only the evening. But massive showers ensured that I stayed the night with the newly married couple. I remember how the very air of their home was imbued with the romance of new domesticity: the working couple returning home and sharing their day over coffee, the husband busy stocking up the fridge with provisions, the wife lovingly cooking bhoonyi khichri (with an assortment of items to go with it). On the face of it, nothing different from any other working couple… just the way they went about it, which made it clear that the ritual was still new.
Next morning saw Brototi laying out an elaborate breakfast – complete with protein, carbohydrate, calcium and fibre. I marveled at the meticulousness with which she ensured the complete diet.
I was also impressed by another thing: Debanjan’s choice collection of books and CD’s, probably because I have known few in his profession with such a literary/aesthetic bent of mind. I remember taking “The Book of Laughter & Forgetting” with me to bed the night I had stayed.
After Bangalore, the couple had shifted to Delhi in 2009 and was blessed with a son the year after. Brototi was then teaching at Amity, Noida, but gave up her job during her pregnancy. And never returned to work thereafter. It was a conscious decision on her part, driven in equal measure by a desire to devote herself full time to raising a child (inspired in this by a friend of hers) and also by the reality of her domestic situation – the fact that she knew she wouldn’t be able to avail the kind of family support that working mothers need to sustain their careers.
I never had the chance to visit her Delhi home. After 2005, I met her only in December 2012. By then, they had relocated to Kolkata. A lot had happened in our lives in the intervening 7 years, motherhood being the most recent and overwhelming of our experiences. I refused to eat anything that December afternoon at her home, lest we have less time to talk. There was so much to say, to share. I settled instead for 4 rounds of tea & 2 packs of ‘Nice’ biscuits!
Her new – and permanent – home in New Town is a delight: aesthetically done, with enormous thought given to the littlest of things. To be with her is a great way to unwind – her home’s cozy interior, her hospitality, the quiet of her surroundings, make it the ideal getaway for me for a few hours. Only, I haven’t had much scope to enjoy that getaway.
She is one of the few people in Kolkata who insist on meeting at home and cooking a meal for me. No matter how hard I try to dissuade her from it, always pleading for uncluttered conversation (as the socializing time at my disposal is invariably short), she adamantly sticks to her guns: “Of course, Ritu di, we will talk. We’ll eat and talk.” I enjoy whatever she cooks, but more than that, I feel grateful for what she so generously offers (despite my protestations). With my mother and an entire generation of aunts – not to speak of grandmothers – passing away, there are few left to feed me. And here she is, a younger sister and friend, taking on that role on her own!
We had spent only a very short time together as departmental colleagues. Most of the rest of the 15 years have been spent in cherishing the memory of that time! 7 years without seeing each other. And then, on an average, meeting up once a year. This was the case not only from 2012 to 2016 (while I was still in the Netherlands and visited Kolkata annually), but is true even after my return in 2017. I earnestly hope we can meet more frequently in the coming years.