Samaresh Majumdar (1944-2023): Literary colossus who captivated generations

Published : May 09, 2023 20:17 IST - 5 MINS READ

Bengali literature bids farewell to an icon whose versatile storytelling and political vision left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape.

The story goes that in the year 1967, a young Samaresh Majumdar, while studying at Scottish Church College in Kolkata, was working on writing a play for his friends to act in. However, in the course of writing, the play took on the form of a short story. With the encouragement of his friends, Majumdar sent the piece to Desh, one of the most respected literary magazines in Bengal. After around six months, he was informed by the magazine that the story would finally be published.

However, a few days later, the same manuscript he had sent was returned to him. A furious Majumdar called up the editor of the stories section of Desh, the eminent writer and novelist Bimal Kar, and gave him an earful. He did not care that he was risking the ire of the most influential literary magazine in the State with his outburst. But Kar, far from being annoyed, acknowledged that a clerical error was the reason behind the confusion, and Majumdar’s first short story, Antar Atma, was published. This was the beginning of one of the most illustrious literary careers in Bengal’s cultural history. On May 8, Samaresh Majumdar, one of the greatest Bengali writers of post-Independent India, passed away after a prolonged illness. He was 79.

Majumdar’s death marks the end of an era in Bengali culture. The writer of such modern classics as Uttaradhikar, Kalbela, Kalpurush, Garbhodharini, Showar, Buno Haansh, and Kalikatay Nabakumar, Majumdar strode the world of Bengali literature like a colossus for nearly 50 years. Some of the most well-loved and immortal characters of Bengali fiction sprang from his pen, including Madhabilata (in Kalbela), Animesh (from the quartet Uttaradhikar, Kalbela, Kalpurush, and Moushalkal), Animesh and Madhabilata’s son, Arka (in Kalpurush), and the perennial favourite of young (and adult) readers, the iconic detective-cum-adventurer, Arjun (from a series of books he wrote from 1983 to 2019).

In his condolence message, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter: “Shri Samaresh Majumdar will be remembered for his contribution to Bengali literature. His works capture different aspects of the society and culture of West Bengal. My condolences to his family.”

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said: “We mourn the loss of Sahitya Akademi Award-winning Bengali litterateur, Samaresh Majumdar. Best known for his political trilogy—Uttaradhikar, Kalbela, and Kalpurush—Majumdar’s writing was marked by a unique blend of realism and imagination. Spanning over five decades, Majumdar’s literary career captured the essence of Bengali culture and society and conveyed deep emotions and complex ideas with great nuance.”

The plot artist

Since the publication of his first novel Dour in 1975, Majumdar was a tremendous success in literary circles. Few Bengali writers have achieved the level of popularity that Majumdar did. According to Sampa Sen, a professor of Bengali literature, what set him apart was that his popularity never overshadowed his universal recognition as one of the greatest Bengali writers and novelists of his time. Speaking to Frontline, Sen said: “He was immensely popular, yet there was never any doubt that he was one of the most significant Bengali writers in the post-Independence era. His strength lay in his ability to create intricate plots and interweave them with subplots, develop nuanced characters within the context of their era, demonstrate political vision and an awareness of the reality surrounding him, and last but not least, his beautiful writing style.”

Indeed, Majumdar’s writing was so accessible and his storytelling so gripping that they practically propelled the reader at a breathless pace to the final page.

Sen also highlighted that although Majumdar never openly expressed his political leanings, his writings were inherently political. “His greatest novels always reflected the sociopolitical landscape of the time in which he wrote. In the stories set in the 1970s, Majumdar’s protagonists and characters flourished against the backdrop of the political upheaval caused by the Naxal movement. While his protagonists may have possessed political inclinations, Majumdar himself never revealed his own political ideology. However, his respect for the Leftist movement was evident in his writings, as was his unwavering hope for a better future. In fact, it was his political vision that elevated his works to greatness,” said Sen.

Majumdar’s versatility as a writer was apparent in his ability to effortlessly handle various themes and genres. Novels such as Showar, Dour, the ‘Nobokumar’ series (Kalikatay Nabakumar, Film star Nobokumar), and his books for young adults, including the adventures of the renowned detective Arjun, shared nothing in common with his sociopolitical stories set during the Naxal period. His engaging narrative also lent itself well to adaptation in films and television serials.

Fluent prose

Born on March 10, 1944, in Jalpaiguri in North Bengal, Majumdar completed his undergraduate studies in Bengali literature at Scottish Church College and obtained his master’s degree from Calcutta University. He gained popularity and critical acclaim at a very young age. After his first short story was published in Desh in 1967, the magazine went on to publish 24 more of his short stories over the next eight years. He chose a writer’s life, leaving behind a lucrative government job in the Income Tax department, and continued to write despite battling ill health until the end.

Following his death, his friend and fellow novelist Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay wrote: “Samaresh’s greatest gift was his fast-paced, fluent prose....once you start reading him, you cannot stop. Whether it was children’s books or stories for adults, he effortlessly achieved success.”

Among his numerous literary awards, Majumdar won the Ananda Purashkar in 1982, the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for Kalbela in 1984, the Bankim Puroshkar for Kalikatay Nabakumar in 2009, and the Banga Bibhushan from the government of West Bengal in 2018.

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