On reading Buddhadeva Bose’s ‘A Life’

The short story revolves around Gurudas’s sacrifices, dedication, commitment and devotion

Buddhadeva Bose (or BB) (1908-1974) was a 20th-century versatile Bengali writer who wrote poetry, novels, short stories, plays and essays. Besides, he was an influential critic and editor (of Kavita magazine) as well. Many of his works have been translated by Ketaki Kushari Dyson, Arunava Sinha, etc. Dyson has described him in these words: BB is “the most versatile literary figure in Bengali after Rabindranath Tagore, someone about whom it could be said that Tagore’s mantle had come to rest on his shoulders”. Among other works, he has authored a short story ‘A Life’: a story of one man’s quest to write a dictionary of Bengali words. The man in question is Gurudas Bhattacharya Vachaspati, a senior-most teacher of Sanskrit in Calcutta. This is a story of the sacrifice, dedication and devotion of Gurudas.
The story, as narrated in ‘A Life’, is about the vicissitudes of the life of Gurudas—both personal and academic; a story of the sacrifices of his family, which he gave for writing fifty-two (52) volumes in thirty (30) years of the “Great Bengali Dictionary”; a story of his love and devotion towards his mother tongue (Bengali) which was “Complete, living, changing, evolving, and independent language”; a story of his love, devotion and interest in learning the different aspects of a language; and a story of his interest towards learning, of his pains he took for compiling a dictionary, for which he started working from the age of forty (40) for about thirty (30) years. It tells us about the origins of his idea for compiling the Great Bengali Dictionary.
The story starts in the classroom, while he was teaching Bengali Literature to 9th standard students he came across the word ‘Chay’ translated as “glance” or “desire”; he felt confused with its meaning and searched its meaning in various dictionaries available in the school library. Unsuccessful Gurudas searched in other school libraries for this word, spending a good deal of time but nowhere found it. Noticing that none of these included the word ‘Chay’, he was curious to search for its meaning. He met some teachers in the college (Chulna); went to Victoria library; but all in vain; as he could not find what he was looking for. Thus, he came to know that there was not a complete Bengali dictionary which included every single word, every combination, every application, and every colloquial usage, which would enable the Bengali language to be learned, its nature to be understood, and unique creative spirit to be appreciated.
All this led him to write a dictionary of the Bengali language but for writing this he needed some material like books, but having less salary, family burden and other responsibilities, he made up his mind to sell some acres of land for which he motivated his wife, Hery Mohine. After this, he collected and brought a few books, two more dictionaries, Suniti Chatterji’s book on linguistics, and an ancient (but excellent) Sanskrit-to-Bengali dictionary. He started writing his dictionary with the first alphabet ‘AW’. He made a routine and made smooth progress with the passage of time. During vacations, he used to visit Calcutta and spent time in the imperial library, studying books on comparative linguistics and other books not available in his hometown. Besides, he used to visit bookshops on College Street in Calcutta. One day he heard Subrata San’s conversation with a black shopkeeper who was looking for a book on the history of Bengali literature. Gurudas was astonished by San’s words, especially by his mention of Tagore’s contribution to Bengali Literature. This statement was constantly ringing in his ears. The Bengali forms became the subject of his discoveries; this made him rethink compiling the dictionary which was not a compendium of expansions under the light. After reading this, he made many changes as he got new information every day. At the same time, he paid careful attention to the Bengali forms of self-expression for he wanted to know how they were saying it. After this, he went again to Calcutta and this time he learned the Greek alphabets, and rules of Latin grammar and visited Madrasas for learning Arabic and Persian. Gurudas lost his 16-year-old daughter due to Typhoid.
He kept his hope alive and completed twenty-four letters up to ‘Thaw’ in the next five years. But the words no longer flowed (what has started as an extraordinary, thrilling joy and had now turned into work, responsibility, compulsion). The madness of discovery was gone; the excitement of gathering material has dissipated; and in such a situation, Gurudas’s individuality was dead.
After two years, Gurudas went to Calcutta to find a publisher for his dictionary. He signed a contract with Bharat Press on the condition that he should get a recommendation from some worthwhile persons and their publisher, Bipin Babu, mentioned three to four names; the first one being the VC of the university. After a little struggle, he got a recommendation from VC with the words, “I endow this book for publication”. Thus, six volumes of dictionaries were published in one year. The dictionary did not get a good market initially and Gurudas had to pay half the cost (Rs 252 per volume) for the next volumes. And for this, he sold half an acre of land for each volume that he published/ printed. During this time, World War II (1939-45) began, and in the six years of war, Gurudas has to suffer a lot because of financial issues. In 1947, when India got Independence, Gurudas was at Khulna which became part of Pakistan. Gurudas decided to go to India with his family and after a lot of suffering, he came to Calcutta. He again exchanged letters with the publisher and came to know that the volumes of the dictionary are in good demand and thus he was in a condition to publish subsequent volumes, and in the following year, Gurudas finished his dictionary.
Thus, in a long time span of thirty years, Gurudas finished his 52 volumes of the dictionary “The Great Bengal Dictionary” at the age of seventy. Finally, Gurudas got recognition for his outstanding achievement and it was later chosen for the literary award. All this became possible due to praise for his dictionary in colleges, universities, literary gatherings, and newspaper offices and due to a sensational news report by a young journalist with the headline “Sacrifice, dedication and devotion”. When he was awarded, he had fallen ill, and thus turned very weak. In recognition of having accomplished a mammoth task, a minister from Calcutta awarded him a silk shawl, a bouquet of flowers and five thousand rupees in cash. Gurudas died the same day he was awarded, and his body was adorned in the same silk shawl and covered with the same flowers (which he received in the award).
With this ended the life of a person who sacrificed the joys of life for the love and desire for learning; a person whose life teaches us the lessons of “sacrifice, dedication and devotion”.
This story revolves around Gurudas’s sacrifices, dedication, commitment and devotion. The story has both positive and negative aspects.
Some of the positive aspects of the story are Gurudas’s love for the Bengali language and literature; his passion thirst and interest in learning; learning the different aspects of language; his time management in delivering his duties as a school teacher, his responsibilities as the head of the family and for giving due time to studies—learning, collecting material and compiling the dictionary; his sacrifices and his never-ending hope; and his boldness in facing the critical situations.
Some of the negative aspects of the story are that Gurudas sold all his property for publishing his dictionary: having a very little salary and many mouths to feed. He should have given more attention to his family and their sufferings (treatment of his sixteen-year-old daughter) which later caused her death. He sold his all property without informing his family (especially his wife), for the publication of the dictionary.
The central theme of ‘A Life’ is that the “best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.

The writer holds PG in English Literature from the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), Awantipora, J&K. Feedback at [email protected]

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