Guest Author: Utsa Bose
Death, we are told, arrives unawares; that it arrives suddenly, softly, swiftly, without remorse, catching us defenceless, ripping us apart. We learn to read death as a parting, as departing, as an aberration, as deviation, devastation and exception—but what are we to do when we reach a point in life when the dead outnumber the living? This year seems to stretch longer than others. As if time, like a blind mendicant, has lost direction, running in circles, prolonging this unending plight of living as if dying—surrounded as we are, by this unbearable burden of surviving. Barely surviving.
Over the last few months, death arrived too often, too routinely, so much so that I had started seeing it as a part of the ubiquitous. I lost relatives and friends I had forgotten about. Why then, did my heart stretch and stop when, last afternoon, my father walked into my room and, with a weary look at me, said, “Apu has left”?
We all knew this day was coming. We had reconciled ourselves with the knowledge that we would not be able to see our beloved Amal, or Khid-da on screen ever again. Why then, did my eyes flicker so? I sat down, dejected, closing my eyes to the voices of the world around me, trying to remember what was it that was lost, and how it had all began. My earliest memory of Soumitra was seeing him as Feluda in Sonar Kella. Like most Bengali children, I was exposed to canonical markers as an initiation into culture. It was only later, when I was nineteen, and sitting in Delhi that I rediscovered him anew, this time as Apu in ‘Apur Sansar’ (1959). There was a refreshing candour in this performance, as if it wasn’t really acting—and henceforth, whenever I saw him on screen again, it seemed to me that it was Apu who was putting on an act.
I suspect that’s how it was for most of us—we had taken his life to be a sort of unconscious continuum—as if even though Satyajit Ray was no more, Apu was still there. Soumitra would be there. Apu, who saw death in front of him, over and over, and who persevered, triumphed, and kept walking, would make it through. It had never occurred to us that we had embarked with him too—on this open road, forgetting that those who set us on the path of our lives seldom remain to see what becomes of it.
Soumitra’s death is different; not in its unceremonious ruthlessness, but because it is a severance. It is a cord being cut, a link being erased, disconnecting us from the past. There were others, of course, who were as great, or perhaps greater in their craft compared to him—I’m reminded of Uttam Kumar or Rabi Ghosh; but Soumitra was living. Unlike the others, he was still here, on this side, very much a part of public ubiquity as well as public memory. You could see him everywhere—in ads for dubious products, on movie trailers in metro stations, in posters old and very, very new. Unlike most stars, he refused to remain frozen in time, he refused to be remembered as a pretty face in monochrome, he moved, he grew, he changed.
There is a scene in Apur Sansar that I particularly like to remind myself of. It is an iconic scene in every sense of the term; towards the end, the parting shot shows the dejected Apu stopping in his tracks, pulled back by the call of his little son. He wants the child to come away with him. The child, however, is unsure. The man standing in front of him is a stranger who looks utterly familiar.
“Ashbe amar shonge?” Apu asks.
Will you come with me?
“Tumi ke?” The child asks.
Who are you?
Apu stops. Still beaming, he finally utters,
The child runs to him, the father fishes him up like a scoop of moonlight. Balancing him on his shoulder, they set out, out onward, towards the open road.
This scene has stayed with me and, with time, has come to mean different things. Today, though, I would want to take the liberty of reading it differently. I choose to read the child as the past as well as the future. The past, with its timorous fragility, the future with its looming uncertainty. To be a bridge, I imagine, is both a dignity and a difficulty. Balanced on his shoulder is an inheritance but also a responsibility.
What set Soumitra apart, I suspect, was not merely his ruthless regimental attention to the ethic of work. It was also his ability to straddle the burden of the past with the power to shape the future. Soumitra Chatterjee was a lot of things, but nostalgic was not one of them. It is in this, perhaps, that he differed from most of us—in his refusal to cling to the past, in his refusal to seek refuge in it, to be intoxicated by its magnetic, luscious certainty, or to see it as an escape, an excuse to denigrate the turmoil of the present. Soumitra was not just the hot-blooded Apu but also the aging Lear, the broken king, cracked under the weight of history, trying to stay afloat, clutching the jetsam of memory. In passing over, the death of our last great Renaissance man should not come as the mere end, as they say, of an era. In saying goodbye, Soumitra passes onto us the weight of the present, the burden of so many pasts, and the memory of unseen futures. Soumitra, like art itself, was constantly on the move—adapting, adapting and restructuring himself, suturing himself to the wounds of time. All of history is an act of letting go, of recognising loss and coming to terms with slippage. To Soumitra, though, the past was not merely a golden painting of yore, there at a distance only to be marvelled at. The past was a tree ripe for the plucking, and it bore the seeds with which he could infect the future with his magic.
In an age obsessed with celebrating more than creating, Soumitra showed us that it is possible to be true to one’s quality. That it was possible to stick to honesty when surrounded by those inured to palpable mediocrity. That it was possible to act one’s heart out in a bad film, to look for flowers in a wasteland.
In letting go, he leaves us with a choice. To either lament the loss of the past or to strive to emulate it. That’s all that’s left of us in the end, really. We are the decisions we take. We could choose to grieve over the end of an era, of his passing, or take comfort in the knowledge that people never truly leave.
Soumitra still lives.
He is here. There. Everywhere.
There he is, walking on that little road we all know too well, his shawl fluttering in the wind, the monochrome leaking out, turning to technicolour; only this time, he is not the young man we once knew. His wrinkles outnumber his years, his gait is shaky, his hair thinning. But he still walks. Look, he says.
Look, how fragile, this thing we call life. And still. Still, how beautiful.
Currently studying in the Department of English, St. Stephen’s College, Utsa Bose spends his time writing, translating, and reading a lot of poetry. He divides his time between Calcutta and Delhi.