‘A Life’ by Buddhadeva Bose: Short Story Analysis
‘A Life’ by the famous twentieth-century Bengali writer Buddhadeva Bose is the story of one man’s quest to write a dictionary of Bengali words. The man in question is Gurudas Bhattacharya Vachaspati, the senior-most teacher or professor of Sanskrit. The seed for the idea of the Bengali dictionary was sown the day he was unable to comprehend the meaning and usage of a particular word in Bengali. He was teaching the ninth-grade class Bengali literature that day and not Sanskrit. From that moment onwards the quest to create a comprehensive Bengali dictionary possessed him. His life took on a new meaning which had a subtle as well as a direct reference to certain political, cultural, and mostly literary events that were taking place in Bengal during the Freedom Movement Struggle of India. We must remember that the author himself was part of the Bengali Modernist Movement as well as the true successor in literature, to the Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore.
As mentioned, Gurudas now possessed with the zeal to compile a Bengali dictionary of many volumes begins to research the material to make his dream come true. His life, as well as the development of the dictionary, is chronicled in this short story. Along with these two aspects, the developments in the country are also included in the plot of the story titled ‘A Life’. Indeed, the character Gurudas entirely dedicated his life to the task of getting this dictionary of Bengali words printed and published. The irony is that the dictionary ate up his life. He could have lived a comfortable life, but he chose to do something noble for the cause of literature and scholarship, which cost him ‘a major part of his life’. Thus, the inherent symbolism in the title ‘A Life’. It took a great part of a lifetime to compile the dictionary. It was a thankless task all the way and, in the end, despite all the accolades and awards, it remains a cruel joke for Gurudas.
Gurudas goes on compiling his Bengali dictionary while his family suffers one terrible blow after another. He was a Sanskrit teacher, the language of ancient India. He was compiling a dictionary about Bengali words, Bengali being the vernacular language through which the Bengal population in India during Bose’s time were fighting for freedom against the British through nonviolence and noncooperation. In a major way, the character Gurudas was paying a great service to the Freedom Struggle by the compilation of this dictionary. However, he made one mistake; he thought he would be able to make a profit in monetary terms by his service to India. Little did he know that a service of this kind is always beset with pain, suffering, and hardships. No one could ‘win’ anything on a personal level in the service of the nation. One only learned to ‘lose’ oneself in total dedication for a greater cause and a reward which one never sees in this lifetime.
“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” —Matthew 10:39
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” —Mahatma Gandhi
As Gurudas goes on with the dictionary, he brings ruin on his family and is beset with problems one after another even in the momentum of the creation of this dictionary. Here are some of the many problems that drove the peace out of Gurudas’s life but he did not give up compiling the Bengali dictionary:
- He lost his second daughter due to typhoid.
- His elder daughter was widowed and thrown out of her in-law’s house with her children.
- His son Nobu was killed when he slipped and fell under a train.
- His daughter-in-law on hearing of Nobu’s terrible end fainted giving birth to a stillborn baby.
- The daughter-in-law contracted childbirth fever and after six months of suffering passed away from this life.
- The first printing of the dictionary with only the vowels was not successful.
- The whole land belonging to Gurudas’s family was sold to pay his debts.
- His wife became insane.
- During the partition of India, Gurudas and his family had to leave everything behind and walk towards India.
- His younger grandson became a pilferer.
- He started losing sight in his eyes due to cataracts.
One after another, Gurudas was besieged on all sides with problems. However, he seems to have been a man of determination and set principles. He found peace in the compilation of the dictionary and he did it to the best of his ability. We see his scholarly manner in his widowed elder daughter Bhabani. She sits and proofreads the papers as Gurudas works on his dictionary. It is ironic because Bhabani would not have even been educated if she was the second daughter to be born. In Gurudas’ family, only men were given an education. However, since Bhabani was his firstborn, and she was very dear to him, he taught her how to read and write. Note that Shibani the second daughter was left illiterate. Bhabani would go on to become a very strong character in the story and great support to Gurudas in his final years when they walked across the border towards India from the territory ceded to Pakistan during the time of our partition.
I, as a reader, have dignified respect for Gurudas’ wife Harimohini. She is the one who brings to Gurudas’ attention that he by not educating his second daughter Shibani, has made her a liability. She, therefore, pushes him to get her married. I love the way she curtly mentions the bigotry and hypocrisy of Gurudas’ caste rules which do not allow women to get an education. When Gurudas, too preoccupied with his dictionary, throws back at Harimohini that Shibani was only fourteen years old and girls were even getting married at the age of eighteen, Harimohini promptly replies that such girls were also very well educated by their fathers so that they can be independent. It is obvious that she saw the plight her two girls were in because of the plain sexism of their father and his caste ancestors. It broke my heart to see Harimohini go insane towards the end of the story.
Many social, cultural, literary, educational, and other important themes are covered in this short story ‘A Life’. Some of these are as follows:
- The modern-day Bengali writers.
- The influence of the writings of Rabindranath Tagore.
- Widowhood at a young age in Bengal.
- Girl-child marriage.
- Arranged marriages.
- Dowry debts.
- Class hierarchy.
All these problems and issues are tackled here in this short story. The writing style of Bose is lucid and powerful. He hits home the idea of the hypocrisy of the world especially in the latter part of the story when Gurudas is on his death bed living in a shanty made of bamboo wood. He is desperate to die, but now his dictionary at long last has become an instant bestseller. The people of literature found it very colorful that the creator of the fantastic Bengali dictionary was living in poverty. He is given a literary award of the highest repute. As he was being given the award while he was on his death bed, he requests Bhabani to turn his face in the other direction as he was feeling like laughing at the irony of his situation. He would die the very same day when he would receive the award. This existential crisis is magnificently dwelt upon in the story almost akin to the style of Rabindranath Tagore.
The short story is a bibliophile’s treasure, especially those bibliophiles who love to read about books and literary content. The dedication that Gurudas has to the dictionary is outstanding; the way he scours the bookstores and booksellers in Calcutta to procure the books not only in the Bengali language but also in Bengali literature and religion which showed the usages of the many Bengali words he wanted to add to his dictionary. His devotion, his resilience, his passion, and his perseverance to finish the dictionary is remarkable.
This was the first time I read a written work by the writer Buddhadeva Bose. I enjoyed this story and hope to read more short stories and novels by him. This story was a pleasure to read and analyze.
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