Oral history interview with Swarajbrata Sengupta

Sengupta, Swarajbrata Iqbal, Iftekhar 2009-08-22

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Interview Participants
SS
Swarajbrata Sengupta, interviewee (male)
KM
Kris K. Manjapra, interviewer (male)
KM
testing 1,2,3 ... testing 1,2,3 ... testing 1,2,3. Hello, this is August 22nd, 2009 and this is a oral history interview with Prof. Swarajbrata Sengupta...
SS
I am Swarajbrata Sengupta
KM
in Kolkata. Thank you. Please, professor, when were you born and where?
SS
Yes, I was born at a very famous village, very famous village. The name of the village is Krittipasha... in the year 1935. When I was born, I was named Mani, M-A-N-I. My father was a school teacher, he was the headmaster of the school, of the government school. But he had to leave the school because of his participation in the freedom movement. That was in the 30s. In fact he lost his job. It was a government school, and he lost his job, and he was imprisoned and was kept in different jails of Bengal - Dacca, Berhampur and finally, his last 6 months was spent in the Buxar camp in the border of Orissa and West Bengal -- Midnapur. When I was only 5, he was released from jail and he came to a village and joined private school as a headmaster.
SS
My mother... the name of my father is Rohini Kumar Sengupta, and the name of my mother is Sudhira Sengupta. My mother was a social activist. She was the general secretary of the Red Cross society of our district and she used to distribute milk powders and warm blankets to the poor people of our village and not only in our village but to the adjacent villages too. One day, when she was returning home at say about 9 pm in the night, she had to cross a marshy land, and she was wounded by a very sharp piece of bamboo, and she got infected. And almost... she grew gangrene right away and she died of tetanus, you know tetanus?
KM
Yes
SS
She died of tetanus very soon. An interesting incident I'd like to tell you: She once met a tiger while returning home distributing blankets in a rural outskirt of our village, very solitary outskirt. She was saved by one of our villagers. His name was Kalu. He was a thief by profession, but my mother loved him very much, though he was a thief. My school days were spent in my village up to class 8 only. After Partition we came to this country and I was admitted in class 8 in a north Calcutta school, in Sova Bazar in north Calcutta.
KM
Do you remember the name of the school?
SS
Sarada Charan Aryan Institution. One of my brother in-laws, the husband of my youngest didi, youngest sister... she is senior to me... my didi... do you understand didi?
KM
Elder sister
SS
She was also a freedom fighter. She was in jail 14 years. My brother in-law was in jail for 14 years. After his release from jail after independence, he joined the school as a teacher.
KM
What was his name?
SS
Nirmal Chandra Roy. You will get his name in the history of freedom movement of our district written by some people. And it was under his influence -- he came in touch with M.N. Roy, the ideas of M.N. Roy while he was in jail. He was a brilliant student. He passed his BA Honours in Economics while in jail; he passed his MA in Economics while in jail. He was attracted to M.N. Roy's ideas while he was in jail, along with some of his friends in the jail. It was under his influence, that while even as a school student I came under the influence of Roy's ideas, and I used to visit this place while I was a school student.
KM
This Renaissance Publishing House?
SS
No...it was then the Radical Democratic Party... it was a party then...founded by M.N. Roy in 1939. I used to visit this hall while I was a student in class 9 or 10. All the ideas of M.N. Roy, his humanist principles... but I had some people here, many of them are no more....most of them are no more: Dr. Haripada Chakravarty, Dr. Jyotirmoy Ghosh from Dacca, Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta from Dacca. We used to come here almost regularly. We used to take classes here, we young students.
SS
One of them is still alive, Pijush Kanti Majumdar. He is now very old and sick and he cannot come here. It is very difficult for him to get up stairs. But he is alive. He was at the meeting, the function on Amlan Dutta. The present governor of Bengal was the host.
KM
For this event on Amlan Dutta?
SS
Gopal Krishna Gandhi was the host.
KM
Amlan Dutta and Sibnarayan Ray were both active here at that time as young professors.
SS
Yes, very young and very energetic. Sibnarayan Ray is more energetic, more dynamic. Amlan Dutta is a bit timid but he is intellectually very great. Sometimes I think intellectually he has matched wits with other radical humanists. Sometimes I think he is intellectually better than Sibnarayan Ray. Don't tell it to anyone. It is recorded here?
KM
It's recorded but we can extract it if you like.
SS
Sometimes I think - we should delete it.
KM
Yeah, I will. No problem.
SS
Sometimes I think that he is intellectually greater than Prof. Ray. Please delete this portion. Don't tell it to anyone. It's my own personal opinion..Sibnarayan Ray's area of study is far, far larger, very large, and his tenacity and commitment to Roy and honesty of purpose and his world of acquaintances are no doubt larger than Amlan Dutta. He taught in almost all famous universities in Europe, America and Asia.
KM
So when you were a student, when you were in class 10 and you were coming here, would you say that this was one of the main centres for your education?
SS
Yes, yes, yes. My political and philosophical education started here.
KM
Where did you live? You said your parents came here after Partition, where did your parents settle in Calcutta?
SS
In a rented house in north Calcutta.
KM
Do you remember the street or the address?
SS
73 Beniatola Street.
KM
And you would come to this Radical Democratic office?
SS
I used to come here from my school, from my college and from the university.
KM
And you would travel by bus here?
SS
Yes. No. From the university, yes. My college was not far away, Bangabasi College is not very far, so I used to come here walking. The university is very adjacent.
KM
Calcutta University, yes. So when did you matriculate...when did you enter college?
SS
That was in the year 1954.
KM
And did you know at that point that you would become a linguist and a literature and aesthetic scholar or did this happen later? What was that development?
SS
This is my personal interest. Absolutely my personal interest in Sociolinguistics. It is not included in my course. She is my student, she is an MA of the university. She knows that Sociolinguistics is not included in any of the courses. It is my personal interest. I have wandered to as many as 300 villages in West Bengal in the district of Murshidabad, Malda, Bankura, Midnapur and so on.
KM
During which period?
SS
After... I entered as a lecturer in a college in the district of Murshidabad.
KM
So after you finished at Calcutta University, you began lecturing? And what was the name of the college?
SS
The name of the college is S.S. College [Sripat Singh College], S.S. College, Jiaganj, Murshidabad, my first college. Then I joined the government colleges in West Bengal and I had to be transferred from college to college.
SS
My last college was this one, Presidency College. She was a student of mine in this college.
KM
When did you begin teaching in Presidency College?
SS
1980?...no.... I left Chandannagar College in the year 1979-80. "tumi kon year e bhorti hoyecho?"
SS
Voice 2 (FEMALE): '89
SS
Aami esechi '82. In the year 1982 I joined this college. 1982-83, I was transferred to this college from another government college at Chandannagar in the district of Hooghly. Chandannagar is a very beautiful town. Have you gone there?
KM
Not yet, but I want to because of its great history as well.
SS
Chandannagar is a very, very beautiful town. It was a French town. Even during British rule, even during long period of British rule Chandannagar and Pondicherry was ruled by the French government.
KM
What was the college there that you were at?
SS
Dupleix College was its name.
KM
Dupleix College.
SS
Dupleix College was its name. Even during the British rule there were some pockets of French imperialists: one at Pondicherry and another at Chandannagar. These two only. And the Portuguese had three pockets Goa, Daman and Diu.
KM
I noticed in your... please, go ahead.
SS
And while I had been in that college, SS College, Jiaganj, Murshidabad, I completed my PhD thesis. The subject was very interesting, "the role of the working people in the evolution of language." The working people has a great role to play in the development of language. The working people cannot... the working man... the labourer, say, cannot pronounce a word correctly because of his... because he is so busy with his work, he cannot pronounce a word correctly and properly. Imagine a man is working with a spade in the field. Imagine a man... a labourer... a farmer is working with a spade in the field... with a plough in the field... he is so busy with his work that he cannot... if you ask him, "what is the name of the village?".
SS
If the name of the village is "Panihati", he cannot pronounce the word properly and correctly. He will mispronounce it. He will say... reply... "Peneti"... and this "Peneti" became "Spenit" in Tagore's [Rabindranath Tagore] book. Thus "Bansberia" becomes "Basberia". Have I been able to explain the point?
KM
Yes.
SS
A working man, a labourer, while he is in work ...while he is engaged in his work cannot respond to your question properly and correctly. That was the central point of my thesis.
KM
And when you were writing your dissertation which sounds fascinating and actually quite new, who were the major influences for you at that time? Of course, I read in your...
SS
It was my experience to the people while I lived in these villages.
KM
How about somebody like Dhurjati Prasad Mukherjee?
SS
Yes, Yes.
KM
Were there others at that time all the young students were reading or finding interesting, any others you recall?
SS
He was a very sophisticated intellectual. I admire him. I admire his scholarship, his power of pen as a novelist and as an atheist. But he is more or less a sophisticate. He is not with the downtrodden people of our country, never. He never came to the ground to face a common man, never.
KM
Who were the others scholars who were your friends or who had learned from you who were doing this kind of work, beginning to do this kind of work?
SS
I don't know any of my friends, any of my colleagues or any of my student friends have worked in this line. I don't know. I think not. I did this work with utmost sincerity to prove a major reality of the evolution of language, the role of the working people in this development of language, and I wrote a book in Bengali but I submitted my thesis in English.
KM
You submitted to Calcutta University? Who was your professor at Calcutta University, your advisor?
SS
There were some reputed professors then, Prof. Dr. Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta, he is no more. Prof. Narayan Gangopadhyay, a novelist and short story writer who was my very respected teacher; he loved me very much. Narayan Gangopadhyay is no more.
SS
One of my teachers was a linguist was a man of language...linguist...philologist ... he is not a linguist but a philologist... Dr. Sukumar Sen was my teacher. Srikumar Bandyopadhyay, though he was the Head of the Department of Bengali in this university, he was originally a teacher of English. He was a professor of English in the university. He was a government college teacher and then joined the university as a professor of English. But I don't know why, he came to the Department of Bengali as its head and there he wrote so many books in Bengali. On Bengali novels he has a book, History of Bengali Novels. His only book to be mentioned in English is Romantic Period in English Literature: Shelley, Keats and Byron. It was the only book in English. This was his PhD thesis: Romantic Traits: Shelley, Keats and Byron, but he came to teach Bengali. I left that college and went and joined the government college service and I taught as many as 3-4 government colleges and finally my last college is this, Presidency College.
KM
Did you maintain close connection with the Roy group?
SS
Yes, yes always. I used to write in the TheRadical Humanist, I used to contribute to The Radical Humanist, I used to subscribe to his journal The Radical Humanist, and I used to read his books published from here, and also I used to take classes with my young friends. Here I must admit that I was greatly and largely influenced and enriched by Prof. Sibnarayan Ray.
KM
Even though he was away for quite some time, wasn't he? He was abroad.
SS
Only for a few years...8-10 years he was away from Calcutta in Melbourne. For 8 years, 8 or 9 years. I have been enriched by his writings, by his lectures, by his books, but I must admit that originally all my understanding of life and society, understanding of man...man and his life...man and his religion and understanding of this world has been built up by M.N. Roy and his influence. Even Sibnarayan Ray is an offshoot. He had his originality, but even then I must say he was a product of -- a grand product, a bright product of M.N. Roy and his ideas.
KM
So when you were beginning your teaching or engaged in your teaching what would you say were the main points or themes that you tried most concertedly to communicate to your students? Was it the Royist idea of universality of man?
SS
No, no. There is a course of study. In the honours classes there is a syllabus. I used to take MA classes here in this college. I was confined... I regret to say that I was confined to the course ...syllabus. I had to teach as I had been asked by the university to teach. My university asked me to teach this so I taught them those things. A novel, a collection of essays, a few poems, or say, literary forms and so on. I had no freedom to talk to them of Roy and his ideas.
KM
And your research, your studies and your writings, how did that develop?
SS
That is quite different. It is not related to their study. Before I joined this college, while I was in Chandannagar College, I submitted my D.Litt thesis. My D.Litt thesis was on symbolic forms, philosophy of symbolic forms, symbolism ["An Introduction to the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms"]and that has been printed in a book.
KM
On surrealism [Surrealism and Other Essays]?
SS
No. Surrealism is different.
KM
So this is Signs and Symbols...
SS
Art and Language [Signs and Symbols: Art and Language].
KM
Art and Language was the research you did at Chandannagar?
SS
While I was in Chandannagar. I completed this thesis and submitted it and I was awarded the D.Litt.
KM
That's your Doctor of Literature. So your major interests have been initially...
SS
Initially in Sociolinguistics.
KM
Sociolinguistics within - of the workers and of the village people and their influence on language.
SS
There are some areas in West Bengal where the people speak in their own languages very much distinct from our sophisticated Bengali language. They have their own vocabularies, they have their own use of syntax, they have their own idioms and proverbs
SS
very interesting and I have collected all of them...remarkable.
KM
How did you in your career bring together on one side European learning and education... European scholarship and then on the other side a very rooted Bengali scholarship which is focused for example on village life or on villagers or on Bengali that is not metropolitan Bengali? How did you ... because one might say, these are somewhat different projects, how did you marry them?
SS
It was difficult to manage. One portion of my life, one part of my life is very much involved with this...in this house, with the Radical Humanist Movement.
KM
Which was very internationalist, I would think.
SS
Yes, and one part of my life is very much addressed to the rural people. I am loved by them. I love them and I am loved by them. If you go with me to the villages of Murshidabad, you will find that some 100 people are with me and following me. I am loved by them and I love them too. That is another part of my life. This is my intellectual life, not my scholarly life. This is a very, very different life. Even my friends here do not know that I spent a long 3 months with the rural people of ...called 'Chai' people of Murshidabad. I lived with them, I shared their meals, I used to go to sleep on their blankets, on their beds, and I used to live with them.
KM
So in these rural communities what was the experience of Muslim, Muslim Bengalis?
SS
Most of them are Muslims. The Chai people of Murshidabad are Muslims, most of them are Muslims. But they do not practice their religion very rigidly. They have their own folk songs, they have their own ways of life, their culture, their rites and rituals, but they are not very rigid in their practice of religion. Many of them do not attend any mosque, the Chai people.
KM
So when you go to the villages, the countryside, you are also crossing in some ways the so called community divide, you are crossing the Hindu-Muslim divide and what has been your relationship to Hindu-Muslim relations in Bengal?
SS
It was very, very affectionate and very, very friendly. I have so many Muslim students when I used to teach at Murshidabad. One of my students comes regularly to visit me Nazimuddin Sheikh. He is one of my students. He is a member of our association. He is an executive member of the association. He is a Muslim, but he is very liberal, very progressive; he is not at all rigid in his religious practices. He is most liberal. I found most Muslims in Murshidabad, many of them, very liberal and very flexible. They're not rigid at all.
KM
Last question so I don't overstay my time with you. You became a professor in this very, very challenging moment of history...post-independence...
SS
Partition.
KM
Partition and so forth... now in that context, how did you feel about what your role as a teacher was? What -- did you feel that you had a greater responsibility?
SS
Those days were very difficult for us, very difficult. Very difficult days after Partition, very difficult days, but yet I had the belief, I had the belief, I had the determination that I shall overcome with my commitment to myself, commitment to my brothers and sister, commitment to my parents. My parents were no more.
KM
What kind of difficulties did you mean? You said it was very difficult.
SS
Financial.
KM
Financial difficulty.
SS
We had to leave our home. How to maintain my studies? How to maintain... how to have my daily meals?
KM
That basic?
SS
I had three younger brothers. My elder brother...only my elder brother was in a job in a college at Jamshedpur, Bihar. He was the only earning member in our family when we came to India, when we came to this country. I mean, he had to face the burden of all of us. I mean, family dictates. And one of my sisters, an elder sister, was a teacher here in a school also did much, helped much, helped me much to be what I am today.
KM
Thank you very much Professor Sengupta for your time.
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