The death of the distinguished poet, writer, and teacher, Sankha Ghosh removes a huge, near-silent presence from the literary, intellectual, and moral landscape of Bengal. Sankha babu leaves behind a legacy of truth-telling to the very faces of wayward powers-that-be, which at least some of his students and admirers are likely to look up to with pride and joy for years to come. The truth was there in not just his poetry and other writings, but in his role as a citizen who never shied away from taking a stand in moments of public crisis.
Whether it was in the 1960s-70s when groups of unprepared, idealistic youths demanding radical change were being mowed down in Calcutta and its hinterland by State bullets, or some four decades later, defenceless farmers and their families were being bombed and beaten in Nandigram. Sankha Ghosh never failed in his self-imposed duty of speaking up for truth and justice either by his pen or, equally effectively, by his quiet presence beside the hurt and the humiliated. When such a one leaves, it goes without saying that poetry alone is not the sufferer.
Reading a short but illuminating piece by Sankha-babu in a respected ‘little’ magazine called Sangbartak (Thunderclap), on Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, one discovers one of the foundations on which the poet’s life of courage and making common cause with seemingly lost causes, stood. The poet inherited his life-long admiration for Vidyasagar from his school teacher-father who could not have been a man of means some eighty or ninety years ago, but nonetheless made it a point to fill his humble home with rows upon rows of books, including anything on the social reformer that he could lay his hands on.
Reading the piece, one understood better from where Sankha Ghosh’s qualities of low-profile, determined leadership came. In 2007, when many young people, including a sizeable number of Leftists disillusioned with the ways of the CPI(M) were taken into police custody for protesting in front of Rabindra Sadan whilst an international film festival was in progress in the Nandan complex, the poet, accompanied by the actress, Aparna Sen, reached Lalbazar, headquarters of the Calcutta Police, to plead and ensure that the arrested were not hurt or insulted in any way. The poet could be heard arguing in a soft, persuasive voice that those arrested had not resorted to violence of any sort and were only trying to make their voice heard against an oppressive political culture. As it transpired, the arrested were let off with a warning, but not before being treated to rossogollas and bananas!
I had heard of Sankha Ghosh a lot, read some of his poems in translation, thanks to the able exertions of the academic Kalyan Ray, but that was the first time, in Lalbazar, that I saw the man: a dhoti-clad conscientious objector in whom compassion and conviction appeared to reside in equal measure. The air was tense, so the question of speaking to him did not arise then. However, about a decade later, an opportunity came my way to have a word with him. By then, he had visibly aged and was having to rely on a walker. Yet, I thought, the light in his eyes which no one had failed to notice on the earlier occasion, still shone. Briefly, but with feeling, he enquired of each of us in the small group which had gathered round him.
Later, that same day, I came to know that Sankha-babu wasn’t particularly fond of eating, but had a weakness for chocolates; a piece of information that I found to be quiet charming, and which seemed to give a certain completeness to the ‘man’ breathing inside the citizen-poet. The news that chocolates was among the Jnanpeeth-winning poet’s few inexpensive pleasures, took us back in time to the poem, Chocolate, included in Ray’s volume of translations, called Emperor Babur’s Prayer and Other Poems (Sahitya Akademi, 1991).
The last three line of the poem stuns one by the gravitas of their searing sad sarcasm: Here, here it is/our poetry-/our poetry today are, mere boxes of chocolate. Even as Sankha Ghosh could relish a bar of chocolate, like a happy child, who knows, his appetite for it may have been lessened by his awareness of how appearances were being made to pass for the real thing.
Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.