By Sharmita Lahiri
Samaresh Majumder, an icon of Bengali literature, who was at once popular and critically acclaimed (recipient of the Ananda Purashkar in 1982, Sahitya Akademi Award for Kalbela in 1984, the Bankim Puroshkar for Kalikatay Nabakumar in 2009, and the Banga Bibhushan from the government of West Bengal in 2018), breathed his last on 8th May, 2023.
For me he was a literary creator who adhered in life to the thoughts he presented in his works.
Samaresh Majumder or Samaresh kaku (as I was fortunate to address him as, since he was a friend of my father), the very sound of the name brings back the words he had once said to me “tui ki feminist; ami tor theke onek boro feminist” (You call yourself a feminist; I am a far more ardent feminist than you.). A comment that had seemed perfectly justified to me coming from the creator of characters like Madhabilata (Kalpurush) and Dipaboli (Satkahon). However, what took me years to realise was how nuanced his concept of feminism truly was.
What fascinated me about Samaresh Majumder, the writer, was his ability to tell versatile stories with equal ease – he presented stories of middle class Bengali homes and the politics of the domestic space in Tero Parbon or Attiyo Sajan as effortlessly as his crafted the stories of detective Arjun, or politically and ideologically layered narratives as the trilogy, which has become synonymous with his name – Uttaradhikar, Kalbela and Kalpurush, and works like Satkahon, or Garvadharini.
So powerful was his art of storytelling that it has always been difficult for me to not come back, or rather rush back, to a Majumder story, as soon as I could, once I began the journey with it. The only other writer that I can draw a parallel with in this respect, so far as I am concerned, is someone who is a generation and continents apart – Jhumpa Lahiri.
Samaresh Majumder narrated powerful tales about women. However, his women were not uni-dimensionally powerful, strong, or correct. While Madhabilata and Dipaboli remained firm in their conviction to adhere to what they considered the righteous, some of his other women protagonists/characters, in lesser known works (Janmodaag, Din Jai Raat Jai, Onekei Eka), like ordinary mortals, gave in to errors of judgment, greed of power or wealth, or lust. Yet, what was unique to Majumder’s vision was that the mistakes his women committed did not become the sole determinant of the rest of their lives. They showcased the strength to wade through the storm caused by their error, and refashion their lives, sometimes completely leaving behind the marks of the storm, and at other times moving forward with its remnants. Therein, lay the nuance of Majumder’s feminism – the belief that as flesh and blood creatures, women have the right to commit mistakes and the ability to garner the strength to endure the repercussions, and emerge stronger to curve out their niche. Thus at a point in my life, when I was being judged as having made the mistake of a lifetime, and most people were either curiously fishing for details or emphasising the magnanimity of the error, Samaresh Kaku had nonchalantly remarked, without even an examination of the question whether the decision was right or wrong, “Besh Koreche” (has done the right thing). At that time, the words signified the non-judgemental approach and the unconditional support of a true intellectual. It was only when, years later, I read Janmodaag and Din Jai Raat Jai that I realised where that response had stemmed from.
However, Majumder was not a believer in a Utopian world. I remember telling him how disappointed I was with the ending of Jostnaye Barshar Megh. The protagonist did not deserve what was finally meted out to her. Samaresh Kaku was usually reluctant to discuss his thought process behind his works; he left his readers to create the meaning of his texts. That day I argued, if a crippled Animesh could say in Kalbela that we may have failed, but our victory lies in that we dared to tread that path, why did Abanti’s saga end on such a pessimistic note? Is it because she is a woman? She had suffered so much deprivation and braved it all. Samaresh Kaku responded “aro boro ho, bhujte parbi (as you grow older, and more experienced you will understand); life is not fair and those who have suffered and not given up, particularly women, often have to suffer even more. Perhaps now, in my mid-life, I have an inkling of what he meant.
Samaresh Kaku the person became more fathomable to me, through Samaresh Majumder the writer. He was indeed a literary creator who in real life did not deviate from the thoughts he presented in his works.
Sharmita Lahiri is an Associate Professor in the department of Humanities and Social Sciences IIT Gandhinagar. She works on Indian Writing in English, Bengali literature and Writing Pedagogy, and engages in translation.
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