"Parashuram" (Rajsekhar Basu) (1880 - 1960)

Rajsekhar Basu, or Parashuram, was one of the most venerated figures of 20th century Bengal. A leading light of Bengali literature, Rajsekhar was a remarkable personality. He was a chemist by profession, but his expertise ranged over the fields of mechanical engineering, cottage industries, linguistics, lexicography and the scriptures. Above all, he was a humorist par exellence, and an astonishingly creative writer.

Rajsekhar was born on 16th March, 1880, at his maternal uncle's home in Barddhaman district. He was the second son (and sixth child) of Chandrasekhar and Laxmimani Devi. Rajsekhar spent his infancy and childhood in Darbhanga. He was an inquisitive child and would often take his toys apart in order to experiment with them. In an essay on Rajsekhar, Shashisekhar, his elder brother, writes about how his interest in science manifested itself right from his boyhood. He had put together a laboratory at home equipped with two cupboards of various chemicals; he would forecast the weather by looking at a barometer that he had hung on the wall, would write prescriptions of cough-mixtures for his family members, and later, would even go to the Temple Medical School to dissect corpses. At the age of 14 years and 9 months, Rajsekhar passed the Entrance Examination in the first division. His schooling was in Darbhanga, and Hindi was like a mother tongue to him. In fact, when he was very young, he did not even know Bengali very well.

Rajsekhar was introduced into the world of Bengali literature when he went to Patna to study for the F.A. degree. Some of his classmates were Bengali, and through their discussions about Bengali literature, his interest in the subject was aroused. (His younger brother Girindrasekhar (1887-1953) was a scientist by profession, but also wrote delightful books for children.)

Later he came to Calcutta and passed the B.A. and M.A. examinations from Presidency College. Two years later, he completed a B.L. degree as well, but went to court for only three days. Science had been his principal interest since his childhood, and he gave up the legal profession to return to science.

Around this time, he met Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, who invited Rajsekhar to join him at Bengal Chemical, a company he had founded. In 1903, Rajsekhar joined Bengal Chemical as a chemist. Within a year, he became the Manager and Secretary of the company. Under his leadership, Bengal Chemical became established as a flourishing house of research and manufacturing. For a full thirty years, Rajsekhar worked for Bengal Chemical. Even after his retirement, he remained associated with the company until his death.

Rajsekhar entered the world of letters in the 1920s. His first book of stories, Gaddalika was well-received. Rabindranath found the book delightful. In 1931, when Chalantika, a Bengali dictionary, was published, Rabindranath wrote, "At long last, we have a dictionary for Bengali. The concise grammar for Bengali that you have included in the appendix is also wonderful." Chalantika also included Rajsekhar's first efforts to reform and rationalize Bengali orthography. A few years after the publication of Chalantika, Calcutta University formed a committee to formulate a set of guidelines governing the spelling of Bengali words. Rajsekhar served as the chairman of this committee. The recommendations of this committee were accepted by the literary giants of the day, including Rabindranath and Sharatchandra Chattopadhyaya.

Rajsekhar also played a major role in the history of printing in Bengal. Sureshchandra Majumdar is credited with creating the first linotype in Bengali. Rajsekhar was his principal assistant in this endeavour. The second edition of Parashuram's "Hanumaaner Swapna and other stories" was the first book to be completely printed in Bengali linotype.

Rajsekhar was a man with diverse other achievements. He was an active member of the National Council of Education; he served on the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad; he even provided covert assistance to the revolutionaries of the Independence Movement in the shape of money, chemicals and the methods to build bombs.

Rajsekhar received a good deal of recognition for his writing, but one has the feeling that he did not receive his due because his works were principally in a humorous vein. Calcutta University awarded the Jagattarini and Sarojini medals to him in 1940 and 1945, but it was only in 1957 that the University decided to award him the D.Litt. Jadavpur University followed suit the next year. "Krishnakali and other stories" won the Rabindra Purashkar in 1955, and in 1956, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan. In 1958, he was given the Akademi Purashkar for "Anandibai and other stories". One feels, however, that these awards and accolades which came to him when he was in his seventies should have been awarded much earlier.

Rajsekhar's personal life was not a happy one. His son-in-law, a learned and well-respected man, died of a terminal illness when he was still very young, and his daughter, his only child, died of heartbreak the same day. In 1942, he lost his wife as well. He lived for almost 18 years after his wife's demise and wrote a great deal during this time, but he did not allow his personal tragedies to colour his writing. He also remained actively involved with Bengal Chemical till his last day.

Even after a debilitating stroke in 1959, he continued writing. On 27th April, 1960, he suffered a second stroke while he was resting and died in his sleep.

-- by Mandar Mitra


Under the pen-name "Parashuram":

Short stories
1. Gaddalika
2. Kajjali
3. Hanumaner Swapna ityadi Galpa
4. Galpakalpa
5. Dhusturi Maya ityadi Galpa
6. Krishnakali ityadi Galpa
7. Nil Tara ityadi Galpa
8. Anandibai ityadi Galpa
9. Chamath-kumari ityadi Galpa

1. Parashuram-er Kabita (published posthumously)

Under his own name Rajsekhar Basu:
1. Chalantika

Translations (from Sanskrit to Bengali):
1. Valmiki Ramayan
2. Krishnadwaipayan Vyas krita Mahabharat
3. Kalidas-er Meghdut
4. Shrimadbhagabat Gita
(published posthumously)

Collection of Essays
1. Laghuguru
2. Bichinta
3. Chalachchinta

1. Hitopadesh-er Galpa

About 28 more essays had been published in various magazines but were not collected in book form while Rajsekhar Basu was alive. In the recently published Prabandhabali (Collected Essays; Mitra o Ghosh, Kolkata, 2001), these essays have been presented under two sections titled uttar chalachchinta and bibidha respectively.

Satyajit Ray based two of his movies on Parashuram's short stories. The movie Parashpathar (The Philosopher's Stone) is based on Parashuram's story bearing the same title. The Mahapurush (`The Holy Man') segment of Ray's Kapurush o Mahapurush (The Coward and the Holy Man) is based on Parashuram's story Birinchibaba.

Published June 11, 2002

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