Buddhadeva Bose was born in 1908 in Kumilla in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), and he moved towards the centre of things in Bengali literature, Calcutta, in 1931, after he’d finished his MA in English at Dhaka University. He began to become known, gradually, for a striking number of activities and genres – poetry; fiction; the essay; criticism; translation; the championing of other literary figures, including the awkward and reticent Jibanananda Das, who would later be seen to be the most significant Bengali poet after Tagore; editing Kavita, the first Bengali journal devoted entirely to poetry; setting up the first department of Comparative Literature in the country. Bose’s address, 202 Rashbehari Avenue, became a meeting place for writers, and also indicated the shift in location of literary experimentation and debate (adda, or ‘meandering, convivial conversation’, a defining feature of Bengali modernity, might be a better word than ‘debate’) from the spectacular and derelict North Calcutta, where the nineteenth-century ‘renaissance’ was engendered, to the smaller-scale bhadralok Art Deco south of the city. Bose, besides being an exceptionally life-loving artist – his generosity towards literature and other writers was enmeshed with his generosity towards life itself – had an unusual critical self-reflexivity: he was aware that Tagore had, in a sense, ‘made’ modern Bengali literature, and Bose was engaged in the problem of remaking it, of being creatively and critically alive, after Tagore.
Growing up, I was aware of Bose as one of the major Bengali writers, emerging and establishing himself after Tagore and before the louche Krittibas generation with whom Allen Ginsberg hung out when he and Peter Orlovsky visited Calcutta in the sixties. It was only when I began putting together, in the mid-nineties, The Picador Book of Modern Literature, and when I was lent a thin volume of English writings by Bose on modern Bengali writers, An Acre of Green Grass, that I was introduced to his small but substantial body of work in English, and of the texture and quality of his English prose. There was a lot of noise in the nineties about Indian writing in English; it had partly made me turn away from it to the modern literatures in Indian languages when I embarked on the Picador anthology. I became conscious of at least two things about English writing in India itself. First, some of the best prose seemed to have been written well before the boom began in the eighties with Midnight’s Children – not by professional prose writers, but by poets like Adil Jussawalla, Dom Moraes, and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Second, among the best stylists of English prose among Indians were those who had learnt it as a second language. There was Nirad C Chaudhuri; and, I realised, there was Bose.
Bose is a pioneer of the essay in the form in which it’s been revived in the last fifteen years, alongside a reassessment of the value and centrality that figures like Susan Sontag and Elizabeth Hardwick have to not only American writing but to writing in general. Bose’s achievement, and the more recent rediscovery of his work in English, available for the first time in a new collection, needs to be similarly located in shifts in writing itself, rather than in region. Well before Sontag, Bose, in Bengali, but remarkably early on in English too (An Acre of Green Grass was published in 1948, when he was forty), was excavating a form neither scholarly-academic nor akin to reportage. He moves between memory and critical thought in a way that’s common to the European moderns; yet many of them were still to be discovered in English when he was writing. Taking nothing – the East, the West; the self, the other – as a starting-point, but seeing one thing always in terms of another, Bose thinks through subtly dislocating shifts in cultural focus that the term ‘comparative’ can’t really capture. Bose is a great reader, and he’s a writer who, in his prose, invites us to be readers; no sentence, as in this essay from 1967 about his meeting with Henry Miller when he was in academic exile in America, is superfluous, or entirely expected, or entirely without humour. You can’t answer the question, ‘Have you read Buddhadeva Bose?’ with an unequivocal Yes, because we can’t, once we’ve started reading him, claim that we’ve done that, that ‘reading Bose’ is in the past tense, that we now know what his writing is all about.
– Amit Chaudhuri
There was a time in my life when I was marooned in a women’s college in Pittsburgh. I lived on the campus and ate my meals at the school where they said grace and sang ‘Happy Birthdays’. On Fridays there was execrably cooked fish; Sunday ‘suppers’ were the equivalent of high tea. For lodgings I had a couple of rooms in an attic reached by a flight of steep stairs. It yielded views of rosy skies in evenings in autumn, but as winter came and the heating system revealed irremediable flaws, I nearly froze in bed, trying to read Thomas Mann or listening to the howling of boreal winds. I was alone, I scarcely knew anybody in town, nor was I inclined to go out of my way to make casual acquaintances. The girls I taught twice a week were remarkable for good looks but showed no signs of that high scholastic ability which I was later to find among American students. Reading my copious mail and answering it was my chief diversion. Thus I survived week after week, dreaming of a time when I would be able to see a little more of America, venturing outside steely Pittsburgh.
By a happy turn of events, that time came sooner than I expected. The prisoner was freed; he was even enabled to make a coast-to-coast tour. It was during this period of exhilarating freedom that I took the unusual step of visiting Henry Miller at Big Sur. Unusual, because by nature I am hesitant about making overtures to people whose work or life I find attractive, having a near-mystical belief that only chance can bring about meetings which prove really worthwhile. But James Laughlin of New Directions had persuaded me to write to Miller, and his answer was so prompt and warm and spontaneous that I no longer felt I was an ‘outlander’ in this country. My visit to Big Sur evolved out of this correspondence.
At that time I had only vaguely heard of Big Sur and I doubt whether many among the Indian literati know about it even now, in spite of the eclat conferred on it by writers, artists, scholars and cranks who have been or are residents. My days in California followed a rather conventional pattern – three or four universities, a Vedanta Ashrama, a midnight Easter Mass, a Hollywood studio, a garish striptease, San Francisco. When finally I boarded a plane for Monterey, I did not quite know what to expect, outside what I had learnt from Miller’s letters.
Within minutes of getting out at the airport, where I was met by a friend of Miller’s, I saw a strange country being revealed to me, mile after mile, at a pace too fast for my voracious eyes. At the waterfront right outside the airport I had snatched a couple of minutes to buy a lobster for my host, but had no time to mingle in the crowd that inevitably gathers at such places, or have a drink at some fisherman’s bar, or observe the varieties of marine creatures they had hauled up. These wayside temptations had to be resisted, for Miller had advised me to reach his place before sunset and my pilot was apparently in a hurry. On one side of us was Balboa’s blue Pacific, and on the other an endless row of hills, each detached from the other, densely forested, with a house on each hilltop. Occasionally, leaning on the parapet of some enclosure, were groups of children watching the seals; occasionally, buzzards wheeling. Bathed in a southern April breeze, luminous in the glow of a descending sun, a whole wonderful world flashed past the car-window – green, golden, undulating, abundant. This, then, was Big Sur. As many hills as families, as many houses as hills. One lone house on each hilltop, each home overlooking the ocean. No street-names or house-numbers, no cafes or drug-stores, no billboards or drive-in cinemas. The only means to identify the houses were the capacious iron mailboxes which their owners had planted on the highway, with their names prominently displayed. Here was God’s plenty, every man in God’s own acre, every man with his green hill and a window on infinity, a world which had not yet lost its simple, primeval grandeur but which a modicum of civilisation had made safe for refugees from civilisation. Here it was still possible to believe that Nature is benevolent.
Trees, shrubs, fallen leaves, a rough roadway: the car zigzagged up the hill marked by Miller’s mailbox. The ocean of which I had only caught glimpses from the highway now revealed its full, wide expanse, with a mild vermilion sun on the horizon. Against this backdrop was the tall figure of my host, standing in front of the long wooden building which was his home. He gave me a handshake which it is a pleasure to remember. This Occidental mode of greeting is sometimes reduced to skeletal formality, especially by ladies who offer you two cold fingers, beautifully manicured but scarcely animate, or guarded by a glove in the latest style. Conversely, there are men who stretch toward you an entire arm, straight as a sword, and grip your hand for a couple of seconds while muttering the appropriate polite formula, without any relaxation of their facial muscles. Neither this soldier-like gesture, nor the momentary yielding of mauve fingertips extends beyond the barest recognition of the existence of the stranger who has just been introduced. But Miller’s handshake was full and firm and strong, as warm and personal as his letters, as the books he had written and pictures he had painted. Within the next five minutes I became one of his family.
Never, long as I live, will I forget the few days I had spent with the Millers, days snatched out of a somewhat hectic lecture-tour, during which my brain had stored more impressions then it knew what to do with – faces and places which dissolved one into another, friendships ended when scarcely begun, landscapes whose message I hadn’t yet deciphered. Repose I found with the Millers, something more than pleasure, something humanly shared and assimilated into experience. Henry, turned sixty, slim, straight, grey-haired, his face kind yet austere; Eve, his wife, full-lipped, fresh-complexioned, a model of mature beauty; Tony and Val (Henry’s children by an earlier marriage about whom he has written so often and joyously), both blue-eyed, flaxen-haired, charming, amiable. Miller gave me the impression of being loose-limbed, relaxed, capable of hours of inaction, hours of reverie, slow and gentle in speech, careful in the choice of words, a marvellous listener, graceful in the gestures of his hands. I enjoyed the points of contrast between him and Eve. Henry had the ‘un-American’ habit of writing his letters in longhand (what was more, with the nearly demoded fountain-pen instead of the ‘ball-point’ which had already started on its triumphal march), whereas Eve never ‘penned’ a line except on a typewriter. Before I had known her for one hour, Eve urged on me to call her by her first name (quite a usual procedure in America and one which I have since learnt to appreciate), but Henry, while drawing me into the warmth of his friendship and affection, never used any form of address except ‘Mr Bose’, which revealed a certain temperamental affinity between him and us of the Old World. No doubt his long expatriation in Europe had left its mark on Miller; he seemed world-weary, rather reserved, whereas Eve, so far as I could make out, had all the charm, the frankness, the vivacity, and the exuberance of the modern American woman.
Even more remarkable was the contrast between Miller’s literary style and his personality: the latter, impressive in a quiet, subdued way, reticent almost, marked with a certain ‘holding back’ of himself, meditative, part-Oriental; and the former a torrent of energy, a tide of American vigour, a medley of ideas, quotations, narratives, allusions, reflections, and memories, a gust of enthusiasm which showed no respect for ‘form’ and dispensed with those undertones, nuances, and convolutions which constitute the French idea of ‘lestyle’. How bold and direct and straightforward was everything he wrote, and how restrained his conversation!
What did we talk about? Books and writers, Henry Miller’s joustings with life, Big Sur, India, America. ‘You won’t find a single home in America where someone will say to you, “This was my grandfather’s chair.” We are becoming a race of nomads.’ Reflecting on my flat on Rashbehari Avenue where one room served me as bed-living-room-cum-study, I said that to most people today ancestral furniture might be an embarrassment rather than a valued possession. ‘There is much to say for the dynamism of American life,’ I added. ‘But one needs some centre, after all,’ Miller replied. ‘Something one can hold on to, some idea of home.’
I recalled a passage in The Colossus of Maroussi where Miller says how he taught himself to ‘feel at home at home’. I asked him if he had read Tagore. No, he had not, but his temple had a niche for Ramakrishna. He wanted to go to India, just to see a real saint. ‘Oh, no,’ I protested with some alarm, ‘saints are rare everywhere. One of the misfortunes of India is that anyone who claims to be a saint is regarded as one by the multitude.’ The transition from Ramakrishna to Rimbaud was easy enough and Rimbaud led to Blaise Cendrars and his (Miller’s) life in Paris. When Eve joined us after washing the dishes I asked her what she thought of life at Big Sur. Well, it was sort of fun, with the nearest shopping centre in Carmel, not even a drug-store anywhere near, and no telephones. (This was in 1954; I do not know about later.) One had to drive miles for the smallest necessity, one had to stir out in any weather to fetch one’s mail. ‘This is also the American way, isn’t it?’ I suggested. ‘The spirit of the pioneers.’ ‘That’s true.’ Eve nodded, maybe without much conviction. ‘But I do miss the telephone. I’ve never lived without one, and sometimes I can hear it ringing even here.’ As the night deepened and we refilled our glasses, Miller let fall a few words on a topic he has written about so movingly: the time of his youth and hardship. There was a time when he worked with Western Union in New York, a time when he was unemployed and did not want to be employed, when he went about hungry and traded his topcoat for a taxi ride at the end of winter, but never a time when he did not devour books and gaze at art-dealers’ windows, never a time when he did not want to be a writer. ‘I became one,’ he added with a wry smile, ‘but even now there may be days when I can’t spare a dime to write a friend abroad.’ I realised his situation was like certain middle-aged Bengali authors whose work had brought them fame but very little money – a most embarrassing combination.
Miller and I parted for the night at the door of the log-cabin which he had rented for me to sleep in. Near it was the Pacific Bend, famed for its hot sulphur springs. In a glimmering moonlight the ocean was faintly visible. I gave the landscape a few minutes before turning in. A thin moon hanging over the sea and flattened by the sea fogs; above it, towering darkness reaching up to the zenith, perforated by stars. My cabin lay in the shadow of a huge hill of which I could make out but the barest outline. There was a rippling breeze, not a cat in sight, not a whirr of a passing automobile; only a faint swish of the ocean and the breathing of the voiceless trees. As I switched off the light, the darkness grew as black as a mother’s womb and in my ears the silence began to buzz like cicadas. I had an intense feeling of the reality of the night – deep, dark, mysterious, overwhelming, a flood on which my consciousness was rocked, not to slumber, but back and forth between memories of loves and friendships, from one dream to another, dreams of happiness found and lost, and regained but to be lost again. What I felt was in fact an incipient poem, faintly tapping at my door, like a waif left out in the cold. I wanted to let it in; a first line formed itself in my mind, a vague shape, shadowy stanzas, ghostly rhythms, but before I could get any further the night itself was obliterated in sleep. The next thing I remember is the Pacific, sharply curved like a half-moon, clinging as it were to the earth with two arms outstretched, seen in the morning light from a window of the restaurant perched on the edge of the ocean. Miller came round just as I was finishing breakfast.
Big Sur evokes in my mind vivid splashes of colour, emanating from the redwood forest where green and purple shadows darkened the hour of noon; from the Big Sur river, moss-green and translucent, slowly gliding among boulders, overhung with vegetation more lush and green than I had ever seen alongside the creeks in East Bengal; from one or two oceanic Sunsets which seemed to have come out of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. I visited that bend of the Pacific where the water was steaming hot and one could smell the sulphur from a mile away; I went through the ritual of the sulphur bath; I saw an open-air exhibition of local paintings. But of people I saw no one except the Miller family, and I saw them all the time, eating my meals with them and going about in their station wagon, but not going out much. It was this circumstance, I think, which gave a peculiar quality to this visit, a roundness which the years have not blurred, a savour which I can still distinctly recall.
From the moment of my arrival to that of my taking off for Portland, there was never an hour when Miller made himself unavailable, although I am sure he had lots to do. Nor did he let me spend a single dollar; he paid for the log cabin and even my breakfasts, frustrating all my efforts to prevent him. All his time he gave me, all his attention. And yet he had known me only through a few letters and very brief presence; he did not know my language and had no idea of the books I had written and wanted to write; that part of me which I cannot but regard as my real self was completely hidden from his view. But I had read some of his works and was familiar with his background and ideas; even before meeting him I had known him in a way in which there was no possibility of his knowing me. And this I thought was the most touching aspect of his friendship – that he had accepted me on trust, as though he had discerned the worth which exists, if at all, not in me, properly speaking, but in what I write in Bengali.
For quite some time Miller remained one of my strongest links with America; his letters reached me in Paris and Rome, then in Calcutta followed by parcels of his books with touching inscriptions. A second meeting did not take place, despite my subsequent travels in the Occident; the correspondence naturally flagged. Even so, I occasionally heard from him, at intervals of months or years, through some magazine or clipping he had mailed, or a phone call from one of his friends passing through Calcutta. And I heard about him, too, from mutual friends in New York, who told me he was separated from Eve, had abandoned Big Sur, returned to Europe but had an alternative home in Pacific Palisades, California. I rejoiced over his soaring sales and his legal and moral triumph with Tropic of Cancer. In one way or another I have felt close to him, despite distance and silence, always, since the time of our meeting at Big Sur. It no longer seems very likely that I shall see him again, but I know I shall remember him as a friend, as a good, wonderful, big-hearted man, and a writer of significance.
The above is excerpted from An Acre of Green Grass and Other English Writings of Buddhadeva Bose, edited by Rosinka Chaudhuri and published by Oxford University Press.