Those who read Paritosh Sen only in English know him primarily as a reviewer and a critic. But he is a major author in Bengali, acclaimed for his highly individualistic personal essays, esoteric travelogues, creative writings that approximate but do not quite conform to the short-story form, and a unique autobiography, all marked by a singularly sensual and metaphoric prose. Practising artists seeking a different medium of self-expression are not uncommon, even in Bengal. In his later years, Abanindranath Tagore emerged as an influential essayist and creative writer, and Binode Behari Mukherjee’s small but significant literary output is as much appreciated by connoisseurs as are his paintings. Both produced autobiographies of exceptional quality. Thus Paritosh Sen belongs to a tradition, and yet remains unaffected by the conventions established by his illustrious predecessors.
His first published book, Amsundari O Anyanya Rachana, is a collection of pleasant and ironical sketches which include academic essays on harmony and contrast, inspired by a chance-visit to the bare-library of a judge’s court where framed portraits of national leaders were hung in every conceivable disorder, and reflections on the importance of lines and designs in everyday life, occasioned by the sight of a street urchin playfully executing a complex pattern while peeing on a compound wall, to pure fantasies such as a folk-painter’s struggle to translate on paper his dream image of a beauty resembling a flawless mango in every limb, and a whimsical futuristic vision of Kolkata plunged in a complete darkness. The three long piece in Alekhyamanjari may be said to belong to the genre of historical fiction. However, the protagonists are not the characters that situate the stories, not even the abstracted ‘pasts’ which constitute the backdrop, but three painted events - the death of Enayet Khan by Jahangir’s favourite court - artist Bishendas, Nihalchand’s Radha of Kishengarh, and the lonely yellow chair with pipe by Vincent Van Gogh. These narratives, rich in find details characteristic of Mughal and Pahari miniatures, and remote in the deliberately ornate- even archaic - prose, are literary experiments which recreate the emotive impulse behind three masterpieces of world art. Abu Symbol, Picasso O Anyanya Tirthe, published in 1996, is an unorthodox combination of the author’s solemn description of his journey to the majestic Egyptian temple of Rameses, comparable to a spiritual experience; his warm personal tributes to Picasso and Brancusi whom he met in their Paris studio; his nostalgic recollection of sedate British country houses and sprightly Paris cafes where he came into contact with some very remarkable persons - eminent and unknown; his tongue - in - check account of a paradoxically artificial Arcadia - a nudist colony in a Mediterranean island; and his travels in Italy with a ballet troupe where he danced in the unaccustomed role of an Indian prince.
All these books have received the critical attention they deserve, but easily his most distinguished work in Zindabahar, his autobiography, which is recognized in the history of Bengali non- fiction since Independence as a classic. Zindabahar is the name of an obscure lane in Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) in which his ancestral house was located. But it was also infamous for the prostitutes’ quarters, patronized equally by the elite, the young bohemians and the poor of the city. Paritosh Sen, who lived in this house till he was 16, observed with the curious innocence of a child this variegated mosaic of life. The household itself was no less lively. He belonged to a family 20 brothers and sisters, and their children - many of whom were years older to him. This enormous institution was presided over by the patriarch, his father Prasanna Kumar Sen, a leading aid and the personal physician of the Nawab of Dhaka.
The book is unconventional in its organization and content. It is not a linear narrative of the events in his life, but a series of independent self-contained essay on the character he had observed. The book begins, for no particular reason, with an essay on the emaciated irascible tailor Hafiz Mian, who possessed a superbly trained flock of pigeons and conducted their daily flights with the practised precision of an army general. There are essays on the quack doctor Akhtar Main, who regaled his friends with fantastic stories of his encounters with wild animals of mythical proportions; on the grave yet frivolous ‘scene- painter’ Jiten Gosai who lived in a world of his own creation; on the apparently stern but deeply affectionate maidservant Jamila’s mother, who devoted her entire life to the service of the Sen household; on his imposing father, rendered impersonal by the simple title ‘Prasannakumar’. There is one on the stately arjuna tree of his native village, the refuge of innumerable life-forms, which symbolised and celebrated life itself in all its variety, plenitude and glory; and one on fire, the awesome destroyer, prompted by the dreadful memory of his father’s funeral pyre, which he witnessed at the age of seven. There is no discernible method in this choice, except that all the characters are captivating in their individual idiosyncrasies; these is nothing to string these disparate characters together, except the author’s interested but non-judgemental eye. It hardly qualifies to be described as an autobiography.
However, thrown in rather causally somewhere in the middle, there is an essay called Ami (literally “I”). At one level, it is a highly assertive statement, and at another, curiously humble. When I first read the book, I was immediately reminded of Susan Sontag’s autobiography - I Etcetera. The English letter “I has an aggressive presence, both culturally and visually. It has an agency, which Sontag sought to dilute by introducing the nameless others who are, nevertheless, subordinate to the overriding “I”. On the contrary, ami, in Bengali, has an unobtrusive quality. It is distinctive not because the person designated by the pronoun has any achievement to distinguish him, but by its singularity. Thus ami is ambiguous and liminal, it is not necessarily the actor. Binode Behari Mukherjee’s autobiographical piece Karta Mashai (literally, the master, and also - subject to a verb) is an outstanding example of dispassionate self-viewing, such was his disengagement with his active self that it appears as if the self has split into two in which the me is looking at the I. It is a dialogue between his two selves where the deliberative self-examines the performing self. However, the “me” still retains a certain I-ness, and the self is in fact very strongly rooted as the title suggests. This essay was written after Binode Behri lost his sight and his gaze turned inwards. Paritosh Sen’s “I” is not the master, but an unassuming ami. An analogy is still apposite, for Sen also organizes his text by means of internal focalization. However, his narrative is focused not on a character, but through the consciousness of a character who, in Ami, happens to be himself. But as this consciousness is disarmingly non-judgemental, the “I” in Ami, to begin with, is almost a neutral category. His self is neither palpably split, nor too firmly anchored, but the fluid self of the experiencing subject. If Paritosh Sen’s “I” claims any special status, it is that of the narrator.
The term narrator usually denotes a person who narrates. However, the narrator has also been understood as simply as narrative agent, a function and not a person. For instance, some narratives may not stem from a personified source, but from a subject position within the text, in which the narrator - or even “I” - may still be inscribed, but without a strong personal involvement. In Zindabahar, the narrating subject is neither so transparent that we are unaware of his presence, nor so intrusive that we are compelled to recognize him, while the characters in the book are object seen through the subject possession of the narrator; in Ami the narrator himself a character and describe what the “I” sees. Here, the “I” and the narrator are continuous but not synonymous. The “I” observes an apparently disjointed sequence of sights, which are harnessed by the fact of the “I” seeing them. Indeed, implicit in this description is the location of the self, but this self is not the focal point; it is the nodal point, through which the sensory images pass.
The essay begins with an uncharacteristically confessional statement: “I often get lost in the labyrinths of our huge ancestral house. Mother has no time for me and the senior members of my family do not seem to notice that I exist.’ This anonymity permits him the freedom to explore his little niche. The ground floor rooms are dark and gloomy. Moist air executes fantastic motifs on the walls. The fuzzy figures of prehistoric animals, shadowy faces, nameless castles offer him a glimpse of the mysterious world of fairy tales. He carefully draws the outline of these phantom designs with a pencil or a piece of charcoal. The idle hours of the day roll on blissfully. At night, row of upturned brass plates in the kitchen glitter like golden lotus fronds in a dark green pool. Occasionally, his father asks him to accompany him on a visit to a wealthy patient. The external world of sunshine and animation reveals itself through the half closed shutters of the carriage. Rows of shops selling tin toys, iridescent kites, fruits and sweet meats, ornaments and dress clothes and perfumes in crystal bottles run away like fleeting dream images before his fascinated eyes. The Nawab’s place unveils yet another world of enchantment and romance. The rainbow- coloured glasses on window panels, the soft thick carpets of intricate designs, the inlaid flower vases and sliver spittoons on marble-top tables, the gilded furniture against ivory white walls, and finally the ethereal women of the forbidden interiors with their lightning curves and butterfly carriage stun his senses. On its way back, the cab moves through the more congested areas of the city where, sitting in front of their distorted shacks, the conch-shell cutters make polished bangles, the cane-worker deftly weavers baskets of various shape and sizes, the wayside restaurants display their titillating fare. The child’s charmed gaze savours with as much eagerness these everyday sights of the sordid neighbourhood as the elegance of the Nawab’s palace.
Apart from this excursion through the city, the only other ‘event’ described in some detail is the gorgeous procession on the occasion of Janmastami. The caparisoned elephants are followed by the bejewelled icons of Radha and Krishna seated on a silver throne. Then appear in successive waves of colour and gaiety, the folk actors, dancers and musicians preforming in a state of frenzy their respective roles as the procession slowly crawls its way through a wildly cheering crowd. But the greatest attraction of the festivities are the giant puppets plays enacting mythological themes. The brightly- lit stage, a fusion of Hindu and Islamic designs, provides the ideal setting for the epic heroes to challenge the might of Ravana.
Rains give way to autumn. The entire family sails in a single file of large passenger boats to author’s ancestral village for the annual Durga- puja. The wide green expanse of the countryside ushers in a different taste of freedom. On evening of the Lakshmi-puja, when the other members of the family are busy preparing for the worship, he sets out alone on an aimless journey in a small country boat. The boat floats across the submerged paddy fields and gradually, overwhelming him in an ecstasy of pure delight, the silk surface of the water begins to mirror an enormous disc made of copper, gold, silver and mercury. The essay ends with the radiant moon assuming its place in the sky.
Clearly Ami is not overtly about himself, the agent of action. It is, if one can identify a narrative thrust, about a child’s sense of fascinated and wonder at the world around him, exotic or commonplace. Neither he, nor the sights he sees, are important in themselves; it is the nature of the relationship between the viewer and the viewed that constitutes his sense of ‘I’. His is not the assertive self that proclaims: "I exist, therefore the world exists". Instead, he tends to suggest not with undue humility but with an authentic self-assurance: "The world exist therefore, I exist". It is noteworthy that he does not participate in the happenings he describes, but responds emotionally to the external stimuli. Similarly, he does not figure in any one of the three illustrations that he has done for the piece. However, the one that depicts Rama's battle with Ravana in the puppet-theatre is suggestive. The text describes violent action, but in the illustration the inert adversaries look at each other in mutual curiosity. Besides, while in the Ramayana Rama confronted Ravana at the peak of his youth, here he is almost a child, not much older than the author as he witnessed this scene. Interestingly, the spectators, who are an integral part of the scenario to which the author also belongs, are not merely absent from the picture, but are emphatically excluded from it by the heavy ornate frame representing the stage. Thus, if even the passive act of seeing is partially annulled in the illustration, the author is not altogether missing; his vision is effectively transposed on the unmistakably large eves Rama, even as he stops short of a complete identification with the active protagonist. This absent - presence significantly marks some of his major self-portraits, conventionally, supposed to infer an element of narcissism. In many of these he is either a divided self - one reading a newspaper with supreme unconcern, while the other is chased by a pack of fierce dogs; or a non-player who, in an athletes; tracksuit branded with a prominent zero, misses the bus; or simply a placid onlooker on a high-backed chair watching, with ennui a monkey - unmistakably his caricature - relishing a banana.
All these may misleadingly suggest an ambivalent identity of the self, but is not so; Arai does represent the domain of an inner agency, which may not visibly act, but safeguards his coherent existence by synthesising the series of moments impressions, emotions and memories through a slowly developing watchful screening system. The success of Ami lies in offering us an authentic glimpse of this mental process, the formation of a child’s ego. Indeed, these impressions are mediated through the matured sensibilities of an adult; the ravishing young beauties of the Nawab’s palace remind him of Botticelli’s Venus and the bamboo grove on the bend of his village river of the Tang landscape. Such anachronistic superimpositions are perhaps unavoidable, but they nevertheless disturb this spontaneity of perception of the images that constituted the child’s universe, so close he get to his originary self.
One cannot help feeling that the self represented in Ami is akin to Hume's conception of the self, according to which, it is a producer of a person’s ability to have sensations and experience. Therefore, this ‘I’ is a kind of interpretation of these sensations. This concept found fuller elaboration in expressionism, a major influence on Paritosh Sen. Expressionists define expression as the recognition of images or object that embody feeling. Expressionist art is thus a visual mode of cognition, a metaphorical activity which strives to express not the intrinsic self, but man's relation to the universe. Expressionist literature extends the concept still further so that narrative development is replaced by a succession of episodes and an exclamatory and elliptical style. No wonder the major exponent of expressionist literature - Oskar Kokoschka - was a painter by profession Zindabahar in general, and Ami in particular, display all these characteristics -- visual imagery as cognition, metaphoric language as medium, episodic narration as form and heightened sensation as content.
However, in this understanding of the self, self remains in the realm of the preconscious till such time as the experiencing ‘I’ makes it aware of itself. ‘I’ therefore, is not necessarily self-identical, but the centre of awareness in a universe of experience. This discerning ‘I’ somewhat stays in the background in Ami, although on feels it’s lurking presence throughout the essay. It emerges as the prime signifier towards the very end when the author perceives the full moon reflected on water. Lacan claimed that the infant recognizes its reflection in a mirror as a reflection of itself, and thereby comes to know itself, not directly, but through the mirror image. The ‘I’ emerges as the promise in the face of the fragmentation that occurs as the chid is separated from the mother. The essay began with a sense of loss, alienation from the immediate environment. This made him turn his gaze outward and come to terms with his fragmented self by means of a series of sensory perceptions, filtered through the incipient ‘I’. The ‘I’ is finally recovered in its wholeness through the recognition and identification with moon. But this ‘I’, even in its totality, is unselfish in that it is never fixation on himself. It is this firm but responsive ‘I’ that characterises all the artistic productions of Paritosh Sen, literary or otherwise.