Memories of Madhupur is a collection of stories that Samarendra Narayan Roy sent to his Presidency College alumni online group. One of those charmed by the stories was Samir Bhattacharya, who happened to be the longtime editor of Parabaas, and thus this slender collection came to be published in 2018.
Roy grew up in the small town of Madhupur, about 300 km from Howrah, and was homeschooled by his retired civil servant grandfather until the age of 12. The stories were originally written
. . . or my children and grandchildren, who would most likely not read Bengali, to tell them of a world they would never see.The 23 stories are short and written in a pleasantly conversational style.
. . . a Pilot fountain pen made in Madras (you know Chennai, no?)Madhupur is small enough that there is frequent intermingling of Hindus and Muslims and Christians, and characters from all communities populate the stories. In Saraswati Puja - 1964 Muslim students "participated en masse in the Puja". In Uncle Gomes, a tribal woman's husband is baptized by a Padre, abandons his wife, and then remarries a North Bengal Christian girl. In Asansol, a car gets stuck in a dry riverbed, The helpless city passengers are saved by the Santal indigenous tribespeople who literally lift the car out of the sand onto a track.
A particularly touching story is Who Cares?, about a man afflicted by polio in the days before the polio vaccine. Nilmoni was a cripple, but that does not entirely define him: he is also a beggar, a drunk, and an excellent cook. On crutches but with strong hands, he worked as a cook for the author's family until his other habits got him fired. Forty-two years later, the author walked twelve miles on non-existent roads to see Nilmoni. (I wish he had explained what drew him to search out this particular person from his youth). Nilmoni, his wife, son, and daughter-in-law had all passed away, but his four-year-old grandson still lived in the village.
The family grocer shop, revived by Nilmoni, was still in business. Local ladies [..] looked after the boy, taking turns to guard him at night. Menfolk took money from the till and duly stocked the shop. They kept books. They fixed proper prices.A sweet tale of community support for an orphaned child, but it ends on an interestingly thoughtful note.
Had Nilmoni not been a Brahmin, would things have been the same? Had his grandchild been a girl, would things have been the same?Roy has a gently amusing way of poking fun at the foibles of the people around him:
the Muslim teacher of Arabic, Farsi and Arabic [. . .] had zero students [. . .] Eighty percent of his waking hours were known to be spent sleeping!as well as himself:
my grandfather assigned me the task of teaching her Bengali and English. Although I was also fluent in Santali, Dehaati and cursing, my Urdu-based Hindi was not much in those days.The author is well aware of changing times, and the fact that many young readers will be completely mystified by some of his references.
'PC' has started meaning a well-known actress of Bollywood. Till recently it had stood for a certain central minister (Mr Chidambaram). Before that it used to mean a Personal Computer. But I am referring to days older yet, when it simply meant a Post Card. Post cards used to be a piece of stiff papers, blank on one and a half sides.Only a child himself, but still educated far beyond many of the townspeople, the author would write letters for people who needed to correspond with their relatives who had moved to the cities. This story, Correspondence brings up a delightful mental image of the young boy under a banyan tree with his Pilot pen, writing a letter for an old woman to her son Wahed.
Occasionally, the long-winded sentences are much like the centerpiece stories in Indian newspapers: a tad verbose, in a distinctly Indian style.
The overall shortfall in people's generosity and grace prevailing after this can best be described by the publicly announced amendments to the shopping list issued to our old retainer for the bi-weekly haat or market which fell on that day.This memoir is like listening to the stories of times past from one's own elderly parents and grandparents. Some readers will be impatient, others charmed.