The name Manishankar Mukherjee was thought to be difficult to pronounce. So he changed it to Sankar. And the name stuck like a second skin all his life — as a lowly clerk, as the author of national and now international repute and a high profile corporate job as the CPRO of one of world oldest electric supply companies. But who was he who changed his name? “Noel Frederick Barwell”, came the reply from the other side of the large mahogany table — from a smiling, portly, happily bespectacled man we have come to know as Sankar, the author of some of the most unforgettable classics in Bengali language and as is now increasingly clear, in any language. “He was the last barrister of Calcutta High Court”, Sankar added. The baritoned, bald Scot employed him at a raw age when Sankar, wandering from nic to nac, arrived at the doors of the Temple Chambers at the High Court where Barwell had his office.

Sankar must have made this conversation often and he has never made any concessions towards his praise for this giant of a man, in looks and in stature that was Barwell. “He was in many ways one of the last gentlemen in the older sense of the term— a man of impeccable habits and person, he could befriend one in no time and did not waste time on needless formalities. I would have remained a clerk had I had not been accosted by Barwell. When he was no more, I thought of absurd ways to pay tribute to him. I went asking painters to paint a portrait of his, visited the local councilor to help build a statue. Both failed. But I grew restless. I had to tell the world about this man. So I decided to write about him. I realised in the process that in writing about my mentor, friend, philosopher and guide I had started telling a story of larger intent, a story of the court, whose premises were perpetually crowded by those with a rather dubious relation to the law. So was born Koto Ojanare, which has now been translated as The Great Unknown.”

He must be elated that now, in less than three years since his Chowringhee became a rage in international literary circles, two more of his books have been translated, The Middleman being the one in the middle, all three having been published by Penguin India. “Of course it is a great feeling. Great honour. Suddenly you see the cartography of your readership expanding at one go. I have always been very grateful to my Bengali readership for what they have given me. I have never found readership wanting for my books in Bengali. In fact, the felicity of my readership has prompted many to say that I am a mass-market author. I cater to the lowest common denominator. I could never put a brave face and challenge such rants because inside I believed maybe they were right.

And all of it changed with Chowringhee? “Yes. Being accosted by complete strangers in strange lands and being feted for a book I had written almost fifty years ago is something that took time to sink in. I was in London when Chowringhee was launched internationally and every big paper in the UK carried full-page articles or reviews about the book. I was overwhelmed, to say the least. I had always maintained that my hinterland was until Asansol. And now here I was and the world around me was going gaga over discovering the Bengali author late in his life. I wondered and wondered, is this really happening?”

Sankar stopped, perhaps to think for a while. But they must have asked what took him so long. Didn’t they? “There is a funny story here. I was asked at this event in London the same question. I said that there are two reasons why I am so late in arriving. First, my Bengali middle-class arrogance. I have always thought that I am beyond the arriviste aspirations of the average humbug and fame if any at all, should come to me rather than me going there. The second concerns a lesson I had learnt from a Horlicks advertisement in my young days. Those days Horlicks wasn’t available and the advertisement showed an empty Horlicks bottle with the slogan, ‘Not available now but the wait will be worth it.’ In a similar vein, I have looked at the empty bottle of fame all my life and said to myself that the wait must be worth.” Was it worth? “Till the last drop”. 

Chowringhee gave him an international readership, which he never thought was possible. “But not just a foreign audience. In Delhi, I learnt that I had even made some Bengali readers.” Bengali? “Yes, the newer generation, said an elderly gentleman at an event in Delhi, had thought that nothing worthwhile is being written in Bengali which they can take pride in. While this was not true but still they had harboured such a feeling. They apparently found Chowringhee worth reading. I thought so be it. Why not?”

So he must in agreement that publishing in English is a different ball game than the vernaculars. “Of course it is. I will tell you a story here. In London, I was staying at a hotel on Cromwell Road, a place not far from where Rabindranath Tagore stayed on his visit to London about a century ago. You know what he was there for? To see if he can publish his poetry which he had just translated into English. He was keen to reach out to an audience beyond his own because he knew unless you are known in the West, half of your effort as a writer is wasted. You know Satyajit Ray had said the same thing to me once. He called me to read an effusive article on his film based on my novel The Middleman. He was ecstatic. I asked why are you so happy? He had said that unless there is approval from the West, it is difficult to do good work sitting here. As with Tagore or Ray, in my own very humble way I have realised why being translated into English actually means that you have arrived.”

That is a rather sobering thought given that almost always there is this pitched battle between the custodians of English and other Indian languages about who has the best writers in the kitty. “Interestingly”, Sankar continued, “Tagore’s son Rathin had misplaced the translated manuscript inside the tube in London. He did not have the heart to tell that to Tagore. The day before they were to meet Rothenstein, someone asked Rathin to go and check the lost & found. And there it was! Just think of it. Had the English translations of Tagore been lost, who knows, we would have still not been known outside Bengal!”

Such stories galore in any session of adda with Sankar. Is this penchant for charming anecdotes that makes your biography of Vivekananda such a bestseller. “I do not know but yes, I was not too keen to say the already said, so I wanted to look at the life of this man closely and his struggle to become a man of great knowledge and insight from a restless young man from a humble middle-class background. Also, has been very fond of his mother throughout his life, till his last day.”

And when is he writing the history about the perennial Bengali favourite sweets, having researched into its beginnings for some years now? “Very soon. A publisher has evinced interest and I am thinking that I should respond wholeheartedly.”

May the wait be worth it!