A Story of Sacrifice, Dedication and Devotion: On Reading Buddhadeva Bose’s ‘A Life’

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‘A LIFE’ revolves around Gurudas’s sacrifices, his dedication, commitment and devotion~

By: Asmat Jan

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 as well. Many of his works have been translated by Ketaki Kushari Dyson, Arunava Sinha, etc. Dyson has described him in these words: Bose 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, entitled ‘A Life’: a story of one man’s quest to write a dictionary of Bengali words. The man in question is Gurudas Bhattachaarya Vachaspati, a senior-most teacher of Sanskrit in Calcutta. This is a story of sacrifice, dedication and devotion of Gurudas.

The story, as narrated in ‘A Life’, is about the vicissitudes of life of Gurudas—both personal and academic; a story of the sacrifices of his family, 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 Great Bengali Dictionary.

The story starts form the classroom, while he was teaching Bengali Literature to 9th standard students he came across a word ‘Chay’ translated as “glance” or “desire”; he felt confused with its meaning and searched its meaning in various dictionaries available in 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 that word ‘Chay’, he was curious to search its meaning. He met some teachers in the college (Chulna); went to Victoria library; but all in vain; as he could not found 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, every colloquial usage, which would enable the Bengali language to be learnt, 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 his mind to sell some acres of land for which he motivated his wife, Hery Mohine. After this, he collected and brought 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 imperial library, studying books on comparative linguistics and other books not available in his home town.

He used to visit bookshops on College Street in Calcutta and one day he heard Subrata San’s conversation with a shopkeeper who was looking for a book on the history of Bengali literature. Gurudas, astonished by San’s words, and especially about 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 to rethink about 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 toCalcutta and this time he learnt Greek alphabets, rules of Latin grammar and visited Madrasas for learning Arabic and Persian. Gurudas lost his daughter due to Typhoid.

He kept his hope alive and completed twenty four letters up to ‘Thaw’ in next five years. But the words no longer flowed (what has started as an extra ordinary, 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 for finding 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 there publisher (Bipin Babu) mentioned him three to four names; the first one being the Vice Chancellor (VC) of the University. After a little struggle, he got recommendation from VC with the words, “I endow this book for publication”. Thus, six volumes of dictionary 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 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 dictionary are at a 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 span of thirty years, Gurudas finished his fifty two (52) volumes of “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, 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 award).

With this ended the life of a person who sacrificed 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, his dedication, commitment and devotion. The story has both positive and negative aspects. Some of the positive aspects of the story are: this story reveals Gurudas’s love for the Bengali language and literature; it tells us about his passion, thirst and interest for learning; it narrates learning the different aspects for language; it tells us about 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; it narrates about his sacrifices and his never ending hope; and it reveals about boldness in facing the critical situations.

Some of the negative aspects of story are: Gurudas sold all his property for publishing his dictionary: having a meager salary, and many mouths to feed, he should have given more attention towards his family and their sufferings (treatment of his sixteen year old daughter) which later caused her death; he sold all his property without informing his family (especially his wife), for publication of his 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 story has many lessons for us, especially the lessons of sacrifice, dedication, devotion and commitment.

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

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