When a library burns down

Omair Ahmad | Updated on October 04, 2019

Taking a leaf out of a great life   -  ISTOCK.COM

The passing of a life lived long and well is not unlike extinguishing a formidable repository of contemporary history

My landlord passed away two weeks ago. It is still hard to imagine him gone. It is not that I knew him terribly well, despite living for more than seven years in the first floor apartment we rent, and he on the ground floor. Partially this was due to the age difference. He was in his late 90s. Not that he was infirm or not in control of his mental faculties, at least not until a week before his demise. In fact he used to go for morning walks at 6 until the last few months of his life, and the only few times I saw him then was when I had stayed up that late, or was leaving for an early morning flight.

The generation gap had more to do with my own hesitation. He had seen so much more of the world, and I felt as if I would be intruding, and that everything I had to say would be childish and inconsequential. I feared making a fool of myself before him. What do you say to a man who, as a child in what would become Bangladesh, had ridden out on a bicycle to see one of the first private planes to land on the Dhaka airfield? A plane that would give people short rides for ₹5, a princely sum then, but unimaginable now, to take a jaunt into the sky? What do you say to a man who had served as a foreign correspondent based out of Cairo between the wars that Egypt fought in 1967 and 1973? Who had, in his time, written a book on the Palestinians?

I remember I was at a conference with a senior journalist, so senior that he was at that time a member of the Rajya Sabha. Since the two of them had served in the same paper, I mentioned my landlord, Mr Punyapriya Dasgupta. The MP remembered him right away, and wanted me to find out from my landlord if he could drop by to meet him. Mr Dasgupta did not seem interested, and was even a little dismissive. I never asked why, never summoned up the courage for it.

Veteran journalist Punyapriya Dasgupta, who passed away recently   -  Swati Dasgupta


Such instances made him appear fearsome, although he was not, or it was only due to my own insecurities. A former colleague of his told me how they were in Kashmir together decades ago, and Mr Dasgupta had developed a liking for tabak maaz — deep-fried sheep ribs, a local delicacy. But he could never quite manage the pronunciation, and would tell the waiter, “Bring that badmash (rascal) meat!”

A Kashmiri waza, or traditional chef, operates an eatery close to our place, and we sometimes order from there. I like tabak maaz myself (too much so, my wife says), but Mr Dasgupta found it difficult to chew the deep-fried meat. Since we knew the story about his old love for the dish, we ordered a few other things from the menu and dropped it off for him. Each such courtesy would be returned with another from him — since he and his daughter knew that we liked Bengali sweets, those would often come our way.

He kept himself engaged, learning how to navigate Facebook, reading and commenting, once discussing with me my favourite character from the Mahabharata — Karna — and the complexity of a man judged by the (false) circumstances of his birth, and not by his qualities. Once in a while, if I had gone to some particularly interesting place, such as Kabul, he would invite me downstairs to quiz me about what I had done and seen, and how everything was over there.

While all of this may give the impression that I knew him well, I never really overcame my hesitation to broach subjects. As a younger journalist I should have asked him about the profession back when he had entered it, what he made of the changes over the years, why he chose it, and what he found rewarding. I could have asked him what, in the near-century that he had completed, he thought was the greatest of the country’s achievements, the greatest of its failures, and why.

Partially it was his reserve, and sense of dignity, that made these things impossible to ask. Unlike many people less than half his age, who have seen a tenth of what he had experienced, he never talked of his achievements or lectured people about how things were “in his day”. As I think of the conversations I never had with him, I am reminded of the words of the Malian intellectual Amadou Hampâté Bâ, “Every time an old man dies in Africa, it is as if a library has burnt down.”

With Mr Dasgupta, a whole library has gone, and we have all lost something.

Omair T Ahmad   -  BUSINESS LINE


Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas


Published on October 04, 2019

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