The world of Buddhadeva Bose

Over four decades since his time as a student at Dhaka University, Buddhadeva Bose remains an inspiration for students of English literature

Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 20 March 2023, 02:31 PM
Updated : 20 March 2023, 02:31 PM

Buddhadeva Bose’s record as a student of English literature at Dhaka University between the late 1920s and early 1930s remains unbroken. For those of us who, more than four decades later, went into a study of the same discipline at the same university, Bose has remained a point of inspiration. And yet it is not merely Bose’s pursuit of English literature as a student which has held us in thrall to him. There is the larger idea of Bose carving out a significant swath of territory for himself in the region of Bengali literature.

Bose was admitted to the Honours, as he writes in his memoirs (published posthumously as Atmajaibanika by Baatighar in 2018) in the Department of English at Dhaka University in July 1927. His recollections of the university remain as poignant today as they were in his time. He speaks of the institution with feeling, referring to the vast expanse of green amidst which the university was situated. It was at Dhaka University that he first saw Kazi Nazrul Islam. Bose subsequently took the poet to his Purana Paltan home. Nazrul, he writes, needed no more than a cup of tea every hour, plenty of paan and, of course, a harmonium. This was the spur to his singing, which he indulged in for hours.

An interesting episode in Bose’s university life relates to Dr Sushil De, who taught English and, at one point, turned to writing poetry. Bose reads a work published by De and reads it again and again, eventually to stumble on the discovery that the academic had been plagiarizing the poetry he passed off in the collection as his own -- part of it as well as big chunks of it -- from Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Bose is stunned that De never credits the two earlier poets in his work.

Bose enjoyed sitting for examinations all his life. On his way to the examination hall for his Honours finals, he recited Beowulf and the poetry of Alexander Pope. Swinburne came to mind, and as he made his way to the university, he wondered why Falstaff needed to be described as a coward. The respect the teachers had for Bose was evident from the fact that every day, at 10 am, at his request, they made it possible for him to have a cup of tea even as he wrote his answers on the exams.

At his Honours viva examination, Buddhadeva Bose faced two experts in English literature -- Professor Prafulla Chandra Ghose of Calcutta’s Presidency College and Mr Holmes, principal of La Martiniere School in Calcutta. Bose has fond memories of Professor Satyen Roy, a fundamentally shy individual who taught him Victorian literature in his Master's class.

Buddhadeva Bose was one of those young men who consciously sought to stay away from the deep, nearly all-encompassing influence of Rabindranath Tagore and, indeed, created a new school of thought that has, for generations, impressed the young. It was not that Buddhadeva Bose rebelled against Tagore or defied him, far from it. What he and his contemporaries, for instance, Bishnu De, did was simply to inform Bengalis and the outer world that there was literature and perhaps undiscovered territory beyond Tagore.

The versatility of Bose is staggering. But, then, versatility is what critical writing is all about. Bose was a poet, a novelist, a critic and, like so many men who lived a life of the mind, a teacher. Yes, there were flaws - the shortcomings which some of us have difficulty coming to terms with. He left this part of the old Bengal right after he finished his education at Dhaka University in 1931 and made Calcutta his home. That was again natural, for Calcutta was then, and is even today, the fountain of all that is brilliant about Bengali literature. 

The sadness surrounding Bose’s departure for Calcutta, though, comes in the thought that in the years after, he did not quite conceive of a nostalgic return to East Bengal. Of course, as we understand it, he was briefly in Dhaka in the early 1950s on some academic programme. But he didn't give the slightest hint of a desire to stay for a while and savour the memories of the past. One is unsure if he visited his old Dhaka University campus (he probably did not).

And yet, in a hugely significant way, Buddhadeva Bose could not free himself of the past. His attachment to Purana Paltan, the few years he spent there until he graduated from Dhaka University, has always been unambiguous. Nostalgia has constantly dripped from his reminiscences of Purana Paltan, a fact that the literati in Bangladesh has consistently referred to in their assessment of Bose as a writer. It was in Dhaka, especially through his love for Purana Paltan, that Bose first began to demonstrate what would turn out to be his abiding love for his youthful past. That love, of course, is conspicuously absent for Cumilla, where he was born. He has little to say about his paternal village.

And when it comes to Noakhali, a place he spent some years owing to his grandfather’s posting, he remained bitter. The bitterness comes through in his essay on Noakhali, the nondescript, unliterary place that gave him nothing. And yet, as he notes, Noakhali turned into a series of global headlines as India moved toward partition. It turned with ferocity upon a part of its population. Bose does not mention the victimised Hindus, but he had that aversion for communal frenzy at the back of his mind. It was this insignificant Noakhali which drew the larger-than-life Gandhi to it. No one else went there. If anyone could put out the fire, it was Gandhi. Bose’s bitterness is something you do not miss.

Bose’s literary life was shaped, to a certain extent, by the circumstances in which he passed from youth to adulthood. His teaching experience at Ripon College in Calcutta, where Bishnu De was his colleague, kept him in professional touch with English literature. But that in no way came between him and his literary creations. And that world of creativity, even if you were to put aside the many journals he shaped or edited, was vast. His collections of poetry, at once modern and yet tinged with the hallmarks of tradition, made him a force to reckon with. 

His fiction explored the somewhat unconventional and, as Raat Bhor Brishti (translated by Clinton B Seely as It Rained All Night) was to demonstrate, could, at times, push him into trouble. Brishti, an exploration of sexuality at a triangular level, was legally decried as obscenity. It certainly troubled Bose, as it will have troubled any individual for whom literature symbolises a passion for life. Poetry, so Bose appeared to believe, was a lot more important than life. That led to raised eyebrows, but it mattered little to Bose.

There were the ironies in Buddhadeva Bose’s perceptions of politics. He was right to make himself part of the writers’ movement against fascism in 1942. He was wrong to think, from the 1950s to his death in 1974, that American policy was a boon for the world. It was not, at least not always.

But it is this craftsman of modernity in Bengali literature we celebrate in our times. As Ketaki Kushari Dyson points out, ‘Buddhadeva believed that in order to write with authenticity and to develop their potentials fully, creative writers really had to engage with their mother tongues and write in them, not in a language that was a colonial legacy.’

(Buddhadeva Bose was born in Cumilla on Nov 30, 1908 and died in Calcutta on Mar 18, 1974)