A writer who brought vernacular Bengal to life in English

A reporter in a big city knows stories that are only accessible to those who see humanity in its darkest, most free and vulnerable. Doctors, maybe, criminal lawyers, maybe. Politicians, sure. There’s a reason Charles Dickens started his writing life as a city scribe, and why Boz sketch, his first published work, traveled the path of the fusion between fiction and journalism.

Those of us who try to write live from more shaded, guarded spaces – like college – wink at them with charmed envy. Most of the time, journalism fails to become literature – even when it tries. But when it does, it carries the grain, dust, and brutal glow of bare life that few spheres of life can bring.

Jhimli Mukherjee-Pandey wrote books that brought vernacular Bengal, with its dark alleys and closets, into the pulsating life of English. His book co-written, A gift from the goddess Lakshmi, Manobi Bandopadhyay’s autobiography, written with Bandopadhyay, was a beautiful and intimate account of a wholly unusual life – that of the first transgender person to become a university principal in India.

There is a pure, unadorned simplicity in the writing of this book, a refusal to engage in rhetorical experimentation in telling the story of a human being whose entire life might seem like an experience to most people. people. When does a person born as a boy realize that they are in their prime as a woman? What heartbreaks does it bring?

What moved me no less in the book is the story of a young provincial from Naihati in the district of Hooghly, making his way through a bildungsroman of love and struggle in Calcutta, as belonging to to the intellectual cosmopolitanism of the University of Jadavpur, mocked by its urban peers and yet supported by kind professors such as Shankha Ghosh. Although this is another’s story, I have learned to recognize Jhimli’s characteristic style honesty in this book, until the difficult but inevitable encounter with political power that Manobi faced in his rich and difficult life. I taught this book in an undergraduate course at Ashoka University and was struck by the urgency with which the students connected to it.

A nice person with a lost and innocent expression – every time I met her in the Time office, at a literary festival or event – Jhimli has written incisively and intricately on sex. His novel, Not just another story, revealed the Shonagachhi red light district with earthy candor.

It tells the heartbreaking tale of three generations of sex workers – Saraju, Malati and Lakshmi – starting with the horror story that forced a girl from Bangladesh into prostitution. Once again, the crystalline honesty of Jhimli’s storytelling refused to change in the face of a painful and difficult subject that could just as easily get dirty.

We had a fascinating discussion about wandering and enslaved sexualities during a session at the Times Literary Festival in Calcutta, about this novel and one of mine, The perfume of God, which was about a queer romance in a Hindu monastic boarding school – hosted by Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap, known for her groundbreaking work with the prostitutes of Shonagachhi.

Jhimli was just as honest and scathing in talking about this as she had been in her writing. But I couldn’t miss the beautiful film of sadness that crossed his eyes.

This beautiful film said all about Jhimli – the humanity that made her the writer, the journalist and the human being that she was. I read a lot of his articles in the newspapers, especially those on education, arts and culture, but it is his personality that has lived through his writings.

To this day, I don’t know how she did it all – working as a senior journalist in a major daily, writing memorable books, being a responsible mother, and yet still finding time for friends. We met every time I was in Calcutta and hung out in the evenings, whether at the press club, at his office, at a literary event or at a festival.

For quite some time now, she had been planning on mistaking me for a “shorbot” at Paramount on College Street – her eyes dancing with joy every time she mentioned it. The pandemic took the city away from my life, friends and family for two years. Now I don’t think I’ll ever have the heart to go to Paramount.

This morning, an incredulous tweet from a mutual friend, Jashodhara Chakraborti, pulled me out of my drowsiness. “Jhimli, I can’t believe you’re gone,” Jash tweeted, with the clip of YOU. Another mutual friend, Mona Sengupta, called out almost shortly after, her voice heavy.

My drowsiness has turned into a dizziness – the pandemic has robbed us of so much of our lives, above all, of the reality of the people we could have laughed and joked with a week ago, that death itself feels like fiction. Jhimli died in a car accident that left her family injured but alive.

Her reality, so vivid with me in her emails and phone conversations, not to mention her books on my shelves, laughs at me as I write. She had interviewed me several times and had written about my work. As much as I admired hers, and tried to present it to young people, this was not the occasion when I imagined writing about it. Goodbye Jhimli – your smile, your words and your honest love will always be with us.

Saikat Majumdar is a novelist, critic and scholar.


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