That evening I stood there at the Howrah bridge, Holding that rail and watching to Hooghly flow wide and deep, My loss my mine alone, It hadn’t changed a thing for anybody else, the crowd was still the same, No one stopped and bothered to ask ‘Are you alright’ everyone was in a rush, the race that was to be won.
I stood there watching the sun beginning to retire after his hectic day shift and remembered It wasn’t déjà vu ,and I had seen this standing right here a hundred times before , but the last time I did that I was ten years younger and the world had changed since then….I had changed!!!
As my memories unraveled, the world began to shrink and the surroundings disappeared…
I remembered… Things that were once lost in the time, when the life gets in our way and we hurdle to win the race, The Rat race…
It must be in the early eighties I was transferred to Calcutta from a village in Maharashtra, Thorough my childhood I had read a lot of things about Calcutta the land of Tagore and Satyajit Ray…I was enthralled when I first heard about the transfer. Everything was exciting I was getting used to the culture, learning Bengali and visiting places around Bengal and then before I realized two years had passed.
In the evenings I used to walk down the Howrah bridge on the way to my quarters, passing familiar faces, but one face was very peculiar and I used to see him daily holding the rail and looking at the Hooghly , every time I passed by him he smiled at me, and I returned him the same.
He was lean, in his early fifties with a long grey beard being the most prominent feature of his face. He always looked happy. Every time I saw him he wore a white kurta pyjama, I always thought he was a writer, an Intellectual with that attire .So one day I decided to stop by and get acquainted.
I couldn’t stop myself from bluntly asking him “Are you a writer???”
He laughed out loud hearing that.” What made you think so?”
“It was the attire” I said
He continued laughing, and I joined him trying to conceal my embarrassment
“So what is it you do?” He asked
When I told him I was working for the Railways he said
“Yes, you look like a sarkari babu, with the ‘Attire’” and continued laughing
I really liked his sense of humor but my curiosity was building up
So I asked him ‘So what do you do, again?’
“Do you have time; I would rather show it to you”
Being single I had all the time in the world, and I thought it would be an escape from my usual boredom of bachelorhood, and moreover his reply had triggered my curiosity to a much higher level.
“Where are we going?” I asked…
“Patience my friend, Is a virtue” came the answer.
As we walked down the bridge he told me his name was Shubrojeet Roy, and he lived in Calcutta for the past 30 years… and we stopped by for a cup of tea.
There we talked about cultures, art, literature and lot of other things. I realized we had a lot of things in common.
After the tea we went to a small old lodge across the street where he said he had been living for the past 20 years, the lodge was an old building built in the Victorian era, and was badly maintained. As we climbed up the wooden stairs he asked me to be careful, not to step on the broken plank.
It was a small room with a bed and a table, and lot of canvases piled up…
“So you are a painter, I asked”
I have always loved paintings, and have even tried my hands on it a couple of times and realized that ‘ It’s just not my cup of tea’ … Can I see them???
“Go ahead’ He said.
I fumbled through them, and I loved almost all the paintings he had there, it was amazing!!!
“So it’s Modern art” I said being naive.
He corrected me “Abstract Art… My boy, or call it contemporary, Modern art is for Art-Proletarians, I don’t think you belong to that category, Do you”
“I smiled, It’s brilliant the colours, the texture, I just love it “I said unable to control the excitement. “Why do you keep this here in the room, you should talk to some art gallery and put up an exhibition or something of that sort…”
“I am glad you liked it” he said , I have tried that but it didn’t work-out , you see Not everybody like my style, They say I am too unorthodox… I manage to sell some though a local antique shop down the street, but…you see … it’s difficult to find buyers”
“Then how do you survive then” I asked as I knew this was the case with most of the artists, they struggle to make both ends meet.
“I used to be in the communist party, so the comrades came to me for painting posters, but nowadays that happen rarely, but money is not the reason I paint. I paint ,because that’s what I always wanted to do ,Colours made me happy and from my childhood I was in love with them.. I enjoy the feeling I get when I run the Brush over the canvas… or the smell of the linseed oil…it’s better than sex ,it’s Eternal Bliss ” and he burst out laughing.
We sat there in his room for almost three hours talking about our lives, He told me how he dropped out of school to join politics, and then how ruthlessly the political system works, I was about to leave then he asked me to wait. And Picked up a painting from the stack and handed it over saying
“This was one of my first work, and one of my favorites, I want you to have it… It’s a little dark but I think you’ll like it’
First I resisted, but he insisted, and when I tried to pay him he said “You don’t pay for gifts, do you?”
After that day we met daily and spend the evening together watching the sunset from the Howrah Bridge….
He once said, ”I have a long romantic relation with the sunset. Thirty years and I can’t remember one day I missed coming to see her, Isn’t she beautiful … and you know what the best part is??? She never gets old.”
Then we would have chai and everyday he had something interesting to tell me, He even taught me to read and write Bengali, He would hand me Bengali literature and would insist me to read them.
He once told me I reminded him of his brother, who died in a riot, and asked me to call him ‘Dada’… As each day passed our bond grew stronger, and we grew closer to each other
Good things don’t last long they say; A year later a year I was transferred to Delhi and had to report immediately, when he heard that he was very disappointed I could tell, but he wouldn’t show it
He ran his hand through the grey beard and said after a long pause ‘You have to go, the life beckons you… I would miss you for sure but you have your life to build up, I don’t want you to become another shubrojeet Roy, I want you to be successful, and I know you will… I want to be proud of you my boy… and May be one day I will be at your doorstep to visit you in Delhi, I have always wanted to see the Taj….’ he smiled ‘don’t worry we will write to each other’
He even came to see me off to the railway station
Delhi was a different world and my whole life had changed but we still wrote to each other… Dada told me he had couple art exhibition and it went well and there was a feature on him in the local dailies but people still didn’t buy the paintings even if they praised it.
I told him about Rekha and we had planned to get married; He replied that he couldn’t come because of his health problems and sent me a telegram and a painting as a wedding gift instead
As the time passed by the letters from him stopped, and he didn’t reply to the ones I sent him… I was worried for a couple of months. But gradually my worries faded as I got busier with life, Rekha gave birth to two beautiful baby boys.
I convinced her to name my eldest ‘ Shubrojeet’.
I still used to think about him, and whenever that happened I used to write to him hopping to see a reply some day.
I missed him., The long conversations we had, the chai, and the sunset ended up as just bed time stories that I told my kids, I knew they wouldn’t understand anything that I said but I wanted my kids to know him like I did… I wanted them to look up to him like me.
Then one day after six years I was again transferred to Calcutta, this time with a promotion.
My hopes of finding dada blossomed. When I reached Calcutta I sent Rekha and the kids to the guesthouse and I went straight to the street where the lodge stood, but the city had changed and there was a shopping mall instead of the old Victorian building and so did all the places near by. Nobody knew what the place looked like before the transformation, and the whereabouts of people who lived there…
I was disheartened.
Later, I went to the local Newspaper office which published the article on him… They directed me to the Arindam Basu., who was Editor for Art and Literature section.
I called Arindam and he said he was willing to meet me when I said the name Shubrojeet Roy., The painter.
He invited me to his apartment in salt lake.
Arindam looked much younger than I thought
He invited me for tea and I told him the story.
He was silent, and I felt something very negative building up in the room…
He said “I know this would be difficult for you, but we just can’t changes what happened…. It was two years ago…It was cancer and for the past couple of years he was fighting it, He was a brave man…. I’m sorry” He then stood up and went inside.
I felt a lump in my throat,
I just couldn’t accept it that he’s gone….the eerie silence kept building and his face kept flashing through my mind, followed by the guilt that I was not there for him when he needed me the most.
Not being able to say goodbye to someone who you love is a helpless feeling!
Why would he hide it from me … He could have given me a hint, I kept thinking as I fought a tear.
Arindam came back with an envelope which he then handed it over to me…
In it was a couple of photographs and a newspaper cutting which said
“Shubrojeet Roy – The Indian ‘Jackson Pollock’ is no more”
That evening I stood there at the Howrah bridge, holding that rail and watching the Hooghly flow wide and deep, My loss … mine alone, there was no change to anybody, the crowd on the pedestrians was still the same, No one stopped and bothered to ask ‘Are you alright’ everyone was in a rush , the Rat race was to be won, I couldn’t stop thinking that if there is a spirit then his’ would be standing right next to me… at his most favorite spot, watching the love of his life…’The Sunset’ .
Couple of months ago Arindam called me and said there was an exhibition and fund raiser at the town hall organized by the Ministry of Culture, as a tribute to Shubrojeet Roy. He said “Shubrojeet would have wanted you to come”
As I walked into the exhibition, my heart rejoiced to see the crowd of artist, critics, painting enthusiasts and politicians that had come to pay homage to Dada; I felt his presence in the place…
In there, I saw many paintings. Some looked familiar and some weren’t, but there was one painting which Dada himself called ‘The Irony’ and below it read
‘SOLD: Rs 500,000 to Sir Peter Murdock’
I met Arindam and thanked him and rushed out, because I was missing him even more…
On the way back to my apartment ‘The Irony’ was flashing in front of my eyes.
The irony was that – He had that same old painting for the past 10 years in his stack, and he lived his whole life in poverty.
I looked up in the sky thinking, if there is a God like they say there is…. he sure has a good sense of humor.
FEB 3, 2011