Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Subrata Kumar Das, The Torontonian Bengali Wonder Boy

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Dilip Chakrabortys autobiographical book was launched in Toronto on August 27 2023 On the stage from the right were Subrata Kumar Das Mohsin Bhuiyan the noted Bengali politician Dilip himself Shahidul Islam Mintu the CEO of NRB Television and Tasmina Khan the writer and presenter

To me Subrata Kumar Das, the celebrated author and erudite scholar, is history, as well as, mystery. History, not in the sense of being past and dead, but in the sense of being present and thriving. Subrata made history in Bangladesh in the past, is making history at present in Canada and, I believe, will make history in future wherever he will be under the sun.
Subrata is tall, not physically, but intellectually. His childlike face hides a highly intellectual mind. He carries his scholarship lightly. A profound scholar and a former teacher par excellence, Subrata is in his late fifties but has already published (authored, translated, and edited) more than two dozen books in Bengali and English. His literary achievements are highly appreciated. He is an M.A. in English and has a command over both English and Bengali. He has a lucid pen, dipped in Indian culture and tradition, and has mastery over many subjects, his unassuming nature notwithstanding. His books have earned love of commoners and accolades of scholars, who are astonished having a feel of his range of studies various genres. His books speak volumes of his profound knowledge, deep understanding, and penetrating insight.

The subject matter of the books, written by him, speaks volumes of his wide range of interest. We can gauge the extend of popularity his books enjoy, if we take into account that many national libraries of Bangladesh, India, Canada, the United States, and Australia have preserved his books. Prof. Subrata has done yeoman’s service to the cause of Bengali novels (literature as such) of Bangladesh by creating a website named Bangladeshi Novels (bdnovels.org). Needless to say, he was the pioneer in providing Bengali literature online. In it he has incorporated almost the whole gamut of the novel genre of Bangladesh throwing light on the literary figures of Bangladesh, both major and minor. This is no mean achievement, we must agree.
In a short span of ten years of his coming over to Canada, Subrata has made history. In the year 2016, he, along with some of his friends, planned and arranged a grand day-long ChaitanyaMela, where apart from several cultural programmes, many religious stalwarts, representing Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, made the audience feel the essence of religion, which is to have ‘passion for God and compassion for man.’ Then Subrata wrote his signature book on ChaitanyaDeb, whom the whole world accepts as one of the noblest men that ever lived here. Subrata’s book on Chaitanya is such a masterpiece that it would be in the fitness of things to throw light on some aspects of the book.

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Subrata has rightly pointed out that though Shri ChaitanyaDeb lived for forty-seven years only, and died about six centuries ago, he is still a force to be reckoned with in religion, literature, music, dance and drama in India and abroad. Our attention has also been drawn to the striking fact that though Chaitanya did not write any book himself, hundreds of books have been written about him by his contemporaries, as well as successors. It is no denying the fact that Chaitanya was a colossal figure in Indian milieu. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that, after Lord Gautama Buddha, Chaitanya was the most influential person living under the Sun. Chaitanya was a catalytic agent that changed the destiny of India. It is also surprising that though Chaitanya did not elaborate his doctrine, many distinguished scholars of international fame, have written volumes about Chaitanya’s doctrine. Subrata has also declared that Chaitanya was the first Bengali revolutionary that shook the very foundation of the Indian society. But, strangely enough, he did not fight with arms, but with instruments of percussion music; his goal was not to conquer other countries, but to conquer the hearts of people. He did not preach hatred, he preached love.

Subrata has rightly asserted that Chaitanya was a great reformer. He freed Hinduism from the shackles of Brahmins and opened its portal to the common man, irrespective of caste, creed, religion, and gender. He embraced the untouchables, honoured the women folk and protected the weak and the vulnerable. Chaitanya boldly defied the order of the Kazi, the then ruler of Bengal who banned ‘kirtan’ (devotional song), roared like a lion and organized a rally of the common man and compelled Kazi to withdraw his order. In his book Subrata has chalked out the chronological, linear and circular developments of Chaitanya’s psyche and highlighted the essence of Vaishnavism during the lifetime of Chaitanya, as well as, before and after him.
It is a mystery that Subrata, within a short span of two years after coming over to Canada, started reading such a large quantum of Canadian literature, churn the sea of Canadian literature and grasp the essence of Canadianness that enabled him to write a superb book on CanLit, the first Bengali-language one on the genre. The book is a gold mine to me. Bengalese all over the globe would bless Subrata for his gigantic effort to introduce Canadian literature to them. As Chapman introduced the father figure of Greek poetry to the English-speaking people, similarly, Subrata introduced the gamut of Canadian literature in a nutshell to the Bengali speaking people. I seize upon this opportunity to record my deep sense of appreciation to Bengalis living in North America, who in no time could understand Subrata’s potential and came forward to render all possible help to him – financial, advisory and others that helped Subrata fulfill his mission of bridging the gulf between the Bengalis and the Canadians. Moreover, when Subrata completed his Golden Jubilee (fifty years), two books were written on him – one by scholars of Bangladesh who knew him directly or through his writings and another by a rookie writer Rajiul Hasan, who had been charmed by the magic of Subrata’s writings.

Subrata is a catalytic agent. He not only wrote some outstanding books, but he also goaded and encouraged Bengalis to write books themselves. I may mention here that till I attained the age of seventy-eight, I had no published book. But now, within a short span of a few years, I do have four books now to my credit which I must admit those would not have come out if he was not in the inspirational role. I express my deep love and gratefulness to the team comprising Akbar Hussain, Sujit Kusum Paul, Sheuli Jahan, Surajit Roy Majumder, Chayan Das, Tasmina Khan, Arka Bhattacharjee, Aditi Zahir et al for their lofty thoughts and unprecedented literary initiative. I am not the only person who has become an author, courtesy Subrata, there are others also, whose maiden book has been published with direct and indirect help of Subrata. When Subrata realized that among the Bengali diaspora of Canada, there are many who can write books worthy of publication, but there is no publishing house to help rookie Bengali writers to publish their books. To overcome this obstacle, Subrata came with a grand idea. With the active support of his friends, Subrata established BLRC – Bengali Literary Resource Centre – to extend help to publish books written by Bengalis living in Canada. Canada has never seen coming into being such an institution to cater to the needs of the Bengalis. The extent of spontaneous support that BLRC got from Bengali writers from all over Canada and the enthusiasm with which they participated in the first two Bengali Writers’ Conference, held in Toronto in 2016 and 2017, shows the sagacity and far sight of Subrata and his friends.

To highlight various cultural, literary, social, religious, and organizational activities of Bengalis living in Canada, Subrata, with active support and wholehearted co-operation of Shahidul Islam Mintu, started anchoring Television programmes, telecast by NRB Television. Mintu’s innovation and Subrata’s wonderful anchoring have helped the fifty-three episodes telecast by NRB Television reach its zenith in popularity. Now Subrata is a household name among Bengali diaspora of Canada. Subrata is untiring in promoting the cause of Bengali literature and has attended many seminars and symposia to serve that purpose. Subrata organized month-long Hindu Heritage Month celebration from NRB in November 2021 and thus illuminated the Ontario government’s declaration. Along with that, since the inception of CBN24, he has been advising the weekly to run on and contributing to enrich its content.

United States of America has recognized the merit of Subrata also. He has been awarded with the prestigious Gayatri GaMarsh Literary Award in 2018. Purbayan, one of the biggest Bengali cultural organisations of Canada, accorded a reception to Subrata in their 2020 annual cultural event. The authorities of TIFA (Toronto International Festival of Authors) have, the first time, included Bengali language and literature in their list and they selected Subrata to represent Bengali literature in that international forum in 2020, 2022 and in 2023. Subrata not only participated himself, but he also included several more Bengali writers to take part in that gala ceremony. The inclusion of Subrata’s name in the short list of Top 25 Immigrants of Canada for 2021 has been hugely acclaimed by the Bengalis living in Canada. In 2023, Subrata has been awarded as the Best Canadian Bengali Writer at the Canadian South Asian Writers’ Conference.

Within a short span of ten years, Subrata has become a celebrity. Calls come to Subrata from all over Canada and the U.S.A. requesting him to enlighten them about Bengali culture and about the achievements of its torchbearers. Subrata has made the Canadians realize that, though Bengal is far away from Canada, there is a subtle unity between these two nations, differences of language, religion, and culture notwithstanding. With all apologies, I would like to take the liberty of quoting below four lines composed by me to highlight this subtle unity in the apparent diversity.

Bengal’s river and Canada’s stream,
Bengal’s bread and Canada’s cream,
Bengal’s fish and Canada’s bream,
Bengal’s vision and Canada’s dream.

Subrata is like a swan. If we see a swan gliding calmly and smoothly on the still water of the lake, we are tempted to believe that it is totally nonchalant and has no concern for the outside world. But if we look into the water below the swan, we will see its feet (webs) paddling frantically in the water making vigorous movements. Its boisterous activities belie its apparent calm and sedate movement on the surface of the water. The same is true of Subrata. In one morning, Subrata might have had a meaningful discussion with Anne Michael, the former Toronto poet-laureate, might have a vociferous argument with John Degan or some other dignitary, might have written three pages each on three different articles, while all the time brooding over the plot of a book, planned to be published in near future. But during all these hectic activities Subrata maintains such an apparent calm and composed look, that any person meeting Subrata, would reasonably think that Subrata was as carefree as a naughty boy. In the beginning of this paragraph, I compared Subrata with a swan. But, at the second thought, I think that Subrata should better be compared with a seasoned diplomat, who can hide his inner turmoil very tactfully maintaining a carefree attitude to the outside world.

Now I want look into his signature books mostly focusing on the three that he has authored during his pre-Toronto days. Many of us know that he has written on the Mahabharata, the greatest epic of the world, on Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel-laureate poet of India, and on Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh. He has also written about Indo-Japanese co-operation of century back; about Korokdi – a village of heritage nearby his own, about how to write as well as a superb autobiographical novel that serves as a mirror for others to peep into the inner life of the author.

Subrata has not only read Rabindranath Tagore, but he has also read him line by line, in between lines and beyond the lines. That has enabled Subrata to see Rabindranath Tagore in a greater and clearer perspective. That is why he could write a book about little known, even unknown facts of Rabindranath Tagore’s literature. Subrata has made painstaking efforts to bring out the global recognition and appreciation of Rabindranath Tagore bringing to light various articles written by scholars all over the globe on the occasion of Rabindranath Tagore’s getting Nobel Prize in literature in 1913. Subrata has rightly hinted that Rabindranath Tagore was born and brought up in Bengali milieu but that did not stand on his way of becoming a true cultural spokesman of modern India and the latter identity did not stop him from being a World Poet.

It is known to all that Bengali is one of the richest and sweetest languages of the world and is the mother tongue of more than 270 million people living in Bangladesh, India and all over the globe. It is the National Language of Bangladesh and one of the National Languages of India. Many Universities of International fame (University of Toronto included) teach Bengali language and literature. It may not be out of place to mention here that Bengali was the first among all languages of Asia to be honoured with the Nobel Prize and that was more than a century ago. Subrata’s relentless work on Bengali language and Rabindranath Tagore is recognised by the Torontonian Bengalis with due respect.

Even a child in Bengal knows that Kazi Nazrul Islam is the rebel poet there. But Subrata has placed Nazrul on a higher pedestal, and rightly so. Subrata has internationalized Nazrul’s stature as a rebel poet by drawing parallels with the poems of Lakshmi Prasad Debkota, the rebel poet of Nepal, placing Nazrul’s signature poem BIDROHI with that of Debkota’s PAGAL (Mad, Crazy). Subrata has further drawn our attention to the hitherto neglected aspect of Nazrul’s that, though Nazrul’s physical presence outside India was meagre but his works transcended international boundaries and was very popular with right-thinking western scholars like Winston E. Langley and others.

Now let us talk on Subrata’s book on the Mahabharata. It goes to the credit of Subrata that in his late forties he could delve deep into the labyrinthine mystery of this ancient epic and feel the pulse of the presumably greatest book of the world. In a book only of 112 pages, he has tried to discuss the whole gamut of the Mahabharata, which is several hundred times bulkier. He has succeeded in his mission with singular devotion. Subrata has touched the fringe of the epic and has presented before us the Mahabharata in miniature, preserving its essence.

Subrata has rightly drawn our attention to the enormous knowledge of Vyasa, who knew mythology, history, politics, war-strategy, apart from sociology, anthropology and many other disciplines millennia ago. For Subrata, it was surprising how even a group of writers could write such lofty pieces with appreciable coherence. The Mahabharata is a gold mine. Subrata has endeavored to penetrate its layers to show its contents. The light emanating from this gold mine simply dazzled our eyes and baffled our senses. It is easier to say what is not in the Mahabharata than to say what is in it. The Mahabharata is the epitome of human experiences manifest in different taboos, totems, and customs. The Mahabharata was relevant five millennia ago; no doubt it was relevant to the times of Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ as it is relevant today, in all the ramifications of the global family of the Homo sapiens called ‘man’.

Subrata has thrown penetrating insights into the narratological acumen of Vyasa. Mythical references claim that originally Vyasa composed a Mahabharata of six million shlokas (verses). Of them, three million were preserved in the heaven (Devaloka), 15 hundred thousand reserved for the ancestors (Pitriloka), 14 hundred thousand for the demigods (Gandhorbaloka) and only one hundred thousand were publicized in the world (Noroloka). We know that the Mahabharata developed from the 8,800 shlokas of ‘Joy’s ‘Bharata’ chapter which ran into 24,000 shlokas. And the one hundred thousand shlokas known as the Mahabharata were narrated by Ugrashroba Souti. The original listeners of Souti’s story were the Sounak Rishis (sages) and others. Such an epic of universal dimensions would not suffice to be narrated by one person, however super-intelligent and extra-meritorious he or she might be. So, Vyasa engaged different narrators to convey the episodes in the Mahabharata. It speaks of the pragmatic sagacity of Vyasa. In the book Aamar Mahabharat Subrata has analyzed the narratology from a literary point of view.

Subrata has hinted at a very significant coincidence about the numerical number 18 (eighteen). It may be noted that the Mahabharata has 18 chapters (Parvas); the Kurukshetra War continued for 18 days; there were 18 Akshouhini soldiers – 11 in the Kaurava side, and 7 in the Pandava side. Furthermore, there are 18 chapters in the Gita, which is told in the Mahabharata also. And thus how this number took a special value in the ancient India has been evaluated by Subrata. At some stage of history this number 18 earned spiritual and religious overtones, as numbers did in many scriptures of other religions. Even today there are many temples where devotes have to ascend 18 stairs to have a glimpse of the Lord.

Subrata has again enlightened us when he elaborately describes Vyasa’s war strategy. In his small but worthy book, Subrata has referred that what one Akshouhini is. We know that three million people took part in the great war and all but seven died. Such a huge ‘dance of death’ could not have happened in a small arena. Here lies the pragmatic wisdom of Vyasa that he spread the area of battle over seventy three square miles. Also mind blowing is the hierarchy of the soldiers. There were nine cadres among soldiers very much like the present day army ranks of Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Lt. Colonel, Colonel, Brigadier, Major General, Lt. General, and General, though in different names. No doubt, Subrata deserves thanks for making such a comparison between the old and the present systems. I fully agree with Subrata that throughout the history of mankind there is no such multi-dimensional character like Krishna – the profound scholar, clever diplomat, wise counselor and superb war-strategist. Krishna is the central figure and the dynamic force behind the Mahabharata. All events in the epic revolve around him. So, our author has written a chapter on him.

Many of our readers know that Francis Bacon, the first major English essayist, wrote about books, “Books serve for delight, for ornament and for ability.” He further wrote, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested.” Subrata Kumar Das’ autobiographical book ‘Uthso theke Porobas’ (Searching the Roots by an Expat) will suit these observations. It is true we admire those books that enhance our knowledge and give us aesthetic pleasure, as is done by Subrata’s books. And so far as the second observation, Subrata’s book falls into the third category – it is to be chewed and digested. Subrata’s autobiographical book which was published in 2023 is a window through which we can also have a glimpse of the inner psyche of the author. Debanjana Mukherjee Bhowmik, the interviewer of Subrata’s book, put such intelligent questions to Subrata and Subrata’s answers are so candid, that we can see Subrata in a better perspective and see Subrata with his frontside back and backside front.

So far we have known Subrata, the author, Subrata, the researcher, Subrata, the orator and Subrata, the organiser. After reading this book, we have known other traits of Subrata’s talents – Subrata, the social man, Subrata, the compassionate man, Subrata, the catalytic agent who turns and transforms a non-writer into a writer (myself included). In short, Subrata, the complete man. In modern time, we appreciate that man who knows something of everything and everything of something. But this is a rare quality. We come across many persons who know something of everything but do not know everything of something. Their study is extensive and not intensive. Sometimes we sarcastically call them ‘jack of all trades and master of none.’ There are others, who know everything of something but not something of everything. They are deeply engrossed in their choice subjects but are blissfully ignorant about the world around them. Reading Subrata’s earlier books we agree that Subrata knows almost everything of something – be it the Mahabharata, be it Japan-Bengal relations, be it Kazi Nazrul Islam, be it Rabindranath Tagore. But after reading his autobiography we simply feel dazzled having an idea of Subrata’s range of reading even at his tender age. Subrata has been a voracious reader and a prolific writer. He not only reads a book line by line, he also reads in between the lines, and sometimes, even beyond the lines. Some of Subrata’s books can easily be a resource material for researchers. For the amount of authentic data that Subrata compresses into his books is simply mind-boggling.

Subrata hails from Faridpur district of Bangladesh. People of Faridpur have small land but a big heart. Faridpur has given India many stalwarts. We are tempted to believe that Subrata, from his boyhood, has inculcated some salient features of his native place. Subrata, a teacher by profession and writer by choice, has written about thirty books in lucid English or charming Bengali. Not only that, Subrata as the leader of a group, represented Bangladesh in an international forum held at Rome in 2006. It goes to his credit that out of two thousand six hundred teams, his team was among the best fifty. And, moreover, ultimately his topped the list of three institutions that were considered the best.

There is a superb Sanskrit sloka in the Upanishad which is written below in Roman script.

Purnamadah Purnamidam Purnat Purnamudachyate
Purnasya Purnamadaya Purnameva Vashishyate.

Which means if from whole even the whole is taken out, whole still remains there. A book is a glaring example of that. Even if the whole knowledge of a book is taken out from the book, there still remains whole knowledge. “E dhan se dhan nay, keu nebe kere, Jatai karibe daan, Tata jabe bere.”

We know a light lights other lamps. It has been Subrata’s lifelong mission to pass on his knowledge to others. He believes in the downward theory of infiltration in education. He sincerely believes that it is the onus of an educated man to educate at least a few persons.

Subrata has given many wise statements in his book. One such is “If the knowledge of some individual outlives him, that knowledge becomes wisdom and, in course of time, eternal truth.” Similarly “All the major religions of the world have many such wonderful observations that is known as philosophy, and that is permanent and one of the two aspects of religion. The other aspect, which is transitory as well as less important is ritual.”

The book ‘Uthso theke Porobas’ was launched in Toronto on March 4, 2023 when I had been in Kolkata. But Subrata didn’t forget to involve me in the launching event and so he asked a small video talk from me. After my return to Brampton, he organised a gala event of launching fifteen of new books by fifteen Ontarian Bengali writers on July 2, in which former Toronto Poet Laureate A. F. Moritz graced as the Chief Guest and on Subrata’s request I had to chair. I am sure, no other one in the Bengali community in Canada has ever thought of such an event to encourage the writers. A group of Bengali authors attended the Canadian South Asian Literary Festival on August 26 in Brampton. Afterwards, Subrata and some of his friends organised a celebration on the Life of Lord Krishna on September 2. September 24 of the year 2023 was very significant for the Bengali poets and writers as on that day under the leadership of Subrata eleven representing authors from the Bengali writing community joined the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA). For me it was the second time to join TIFA after 2020. On October 13, he invited his friends to a Danforth restaurant to share his experiences of initiating his website on Bengali Novels (bdnovels.org) two decades ago. The weekly BanglaMail published a special issue on the DurgaPuja on October 19 which was a brainchild of Subrata. Alongside this 64-page tabloid size issue, he did his best to air cultural programs on Toronto-based NRB TV named Sharod Ananda on 18, 19 and 20 October right before the DurgaPuja festival. All these events Subrata organised only in the last year.

Thus the year 2023 has been very memorable for the literati of Toronto and the adjacent cities. But for me Subrata made the year more memorable. He took every initiative to publish my fourth book, the autobiography ‘Jin: Memoir of an Octogenarian Canadian Bengali’. He not only arranged the publication of the book, he called for a launching of it on August 27. It was Subrata Kumar Das, the enthusiastic organiser of the Bengali community of Toronto who overlapped the book launching event with my 86th birthday celebration.

I know, there might be some genuine objection about the caption of this article. How can I portray Subrata as a boy, when we all know that he is in his late fifties? My humble submission is that I do not think Subrata as a boy by counting his actual age. I treat him as a boy because of the fact that Subrata has a childlike interest in and curiosity about everything around him. He has the simplicity of a child with the maturity of a grown-up person.

So all the time I like to say, Sabrata Kumar Das is ‘A Feather in the Cap of Canada’s Bengali Diaspora’. Thus Subrata has proved that he is not an individual, he is an institution. He is a strong pillar that has held, supported, nurtured and encouraged many prospective Bengali writers in Canada – Sujit Kusum Paul, Akbar Hossain, Shekhar Gomej, Rangalal Dev Chowdhury, Nani Gopal Debnath, Tasmina Khan, and myself Dilip – to mention only a few.

We all know, Behind every successful man there is the subterranean support of a woman, Subrata’s wife, Nilima Datta, is no exception. Hard-working Nilima has always been with her husband in all his literary and social initiatives. Their only daughter, Brotee, is a writer by her own right. Her book was published when she was in her early teens. Kudos to her also. Subrata is not only a prolific writer of lucid style, but he is also a good orator and a social activist, over and above he is a good organizer. All the major problems in our society create a resonance in his mind and he gives expression to his thoughts in his singular style, which creates vibrations in the minds of the audience who listen to him in rapt attention. I heartily wish that Subrata stays here and enriches Bengali literature and culture and gets involved in the right kind of activities of Torontonians in general and Bengalis in particular.

Dilip Chakraborty, born in Bangladesh, is an 86 year old writer. A PhD in English from Aligarh Muslim University, India, Dilip has taught undergraduate and postgraduate courses and worked as a Principal at four colleges in India. With four books to his credit, Dr. Chakraborty now lives in Brampton, Canada.

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