Mani Shankar Mukherjee alias Shankar talks to Sayandeb Chowdhury about the jump he has made from being a Bengali bestselling writer to an Indian one

The fear of becoming obscure after his first novel, Koto Ajanare (The Many Unknowns) haunted Mani Shankar Mukherjee alias Shankar. So what if it became an instant bestseller? “I was about 19 or 20 and had already fallen out with the mandarins of Bengal’s premier literary magazine where the novel was serialised. They spread the rumour that Shankar’s first novel was a literary accident and he is a one-book author. My mother consoled me saying that the writers of epic never wrote a second book.” But surely that was no consolation for a young writer. He had just entered the hugely competitive milieu of Bengali middle-class readership with his deeply compassionate first novel about Noel Barwell, the last British barrister in the Calcutta High Court. “I was his babu, the lowly clerk who would take notes for a barrister,” says Shankar. “I sat outside the main court building, watching the legal drama that would unfold every day. That became my staple for my debut novel. I wrote it because it was the only way I could pay tribute to an exceptional gentleman. In the process, I became a writer.”

But still, the second novel eluded him. Sitting in Delhi, on a tour of his 1962 novel Chowringhee, finally translated into English last year and still a bestseller, Shankar says that one afternoon in the late 50s, stranded at Calcutta’s teeming Esplanade, he caught the rainwashed facade of the majestic Grand Hotel in front of him. “It was as if the curtains had parted on my next novel.” But Grand was not the only one. 

While working under Barwell, a “very elite hotel” in the heart of Calcutta’s booming business district became his second home thanks to the longtime resident — and his boss. “I had no way to enter the hotel from the front. But I could visit the ‘greenroom’ with ease. This hotel, the Spencer’s, the first luxury hotel in Asia became the prototype of my Hotel Chowringhee.”

The characters who populated the hotel were mostly real. “I had met them in my innumerable ‘greenroom excursions’ at Spencer’s,” says the author. But the novel didn’t come easy to him. “One day, after I had made some progress, I was accosted by the state excise officer, a gentleman known to me. He took me to his office and said, ‘You don’t drink. You have not visited a bar. You do not know anybody. How can you write about those influential people who throng a hotel? If you write a bad novel, people will blame me for not guiding you. I will ask an excise inspector to take you to the hotels. You will have free access everywhere you go. And if asked, tell them you are a trainee from Assam. Now go and write your masterpiece.’ This was Calcutta. People cared for a good book.”

Chowringhee was published in 1962 and later made into a blockbuster film. In the early 70s, Satyajit Ray made two films adapted from Shankar’s novels — Seemabaddha (Company Limited) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman). Shankar became the bona fide chronicler of corporate Calcutta — its pettiness, its ingenuity, its strategies of survival. The city was losing its stocks by the hour and Shankar saw to it that the decline did not go unnoticed. How does it feel to be recognised all over India after all these years? (Chowringhee, translated by Arunava Sinha won the Crossword Award for best-translated fiction and became a runaway bestseller.) “As a Bengali writer I thought my hinterland was up to Asansol,” he chuckles. “It’s unnerving to have now crossed that fence. But it has come way too late. I am a spent force.” The novel has been picked up by French and Italian publishers and they are thrilled to have discovered a gem in the crowded pantheon of Indian literature. Gallimard, the renowned French publisher has apparently told his Indian publisher, Penguin, “Tell him he won’t be alone. We have many Nobel laureates in our midst.”