Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Truly one of a kind: Kotoky Sir

My tribute to Professor Prafulla Kotoky Sir, written on 5th June 2018, on getting the news about Sir’s demise

I am not sure how and when we had first met. I was never Kotoky Sir’s student since I did not study English while at University. I guess it was after reading one or the other of my ‘middles’ that he must have tried to contact me. I was then at the university, teaching mathematics on a part time basis. Not sure what triggered it all but once he was convinced that I could write reasonable English, he did not stop pushing me to keep writing. He would read whatever I gave him to read, sometimes he was ecstatic, sometimes less so. But he was always honest and frank, and pointed out what I could have done better. But no matter how bad it was, nothing could shake his faith in me, even in that time when I was more interested in mathematics than in writing. He followed my career moves very keenly and would be almost the very first person to congratulate me whenever there was something to talk about.

It was in the year 2004. One day Kotoky Sir rang me up and asked me whether he could have my newspaper clippings of travel stories to read. He told me that since he did not take the ‘Sentinel’ he had missed out on reading them. Unsuspectingly, I left them with him before leaving for Germany that spring. The next thing I hear is that a book of mine is ‘selling like hotcakes’ in the Guwahati book fair. That really confused me because I did not know of any book that I had written that should be selling in any book fair, leave alone like hotcakes! On further inquiry, it turned out that Kotoky Sir had not only translated all those travel stories of mine into Assamese, but had also put them together and got them published as a book. So, thanks entirely to his effort, I have a book to my name also in Assamese.

And I know that I was not the only person he encouraged in this manner. Whenever we met, he would tell me about some young writer whose work had impressed him very much. Often he would then try to find out more about the writer, establish contact and give them his blessings.  I also know that he was a very soft and emotional person. Once I had requested him to do an editing job for a new edition of an old book which contained graphic descriptions of headhunting and human sacrifice – he could not complete the job as he became physically ill after reading about all that. He told me he had thrown up and had had nightmares for several days after reading about those practices. That was how vulnerable he was. More than once, I have seen tears roll down his cheeks when he had seen, read or talked about something that had touched him.

Apart from the random occasional meeting or phone call, I had no other contact with him, and hence did not know very much more about him or his family. Of course I knew that he had translated many of the English classics into Assamese, also that he had spent many years and a lot of energy putting together the book of Assamese synonyms. And that he took an active and continued interest in the things that he cared about. He never failed to come to each of our award meetings. Not just that, he would call the day after and tell me exactly, without mincing words, what he thought of the speeches that were delivered on the occasion.

But as already mentioned, it was from much before then that Sir would keep encouraging me to write. Your English is so good, why don’t you write? You have seen so much, why don’t you write? Of course you have to do your academic work, but don’t forget to hone your creative talent too… it was as if Sir believed in me and my ability more than I believed in myself. But what I found most surprising was that although I was never a student of his, once he was convinced that I could write, he spared no efforts to keep pushing me to write something.

Not sure what it meant for him, but he did not stop encouraging me even after I left India and moved to Germany. The fact that I was far away did not stop him from dropping by at my mother’s every now and then and to tell her to remind me to get on with my writing. He would come and sit in the verandah of our Panchabati house and have a cup of tea. Just a cup of tea, please, nothing more, he would insist. He would chat with my mother about various things, but also ask her if I had sent anything else for him to translate. And he translated the one or two pieces I had sent almost immediately, and had given the translation back to Ma, neatly written in his beautiful handwriting.

But I had almost stopped writing after that initial flurry of writing in the Sentinel in the 1990s. I did write small things every now and then but never had the energy to send them for publication. I did put up a few on my own blog just for the record. Then one time several years ago, he told me that he wanted to bring out a second edition of that earlier travel book and wanted to incorporate all the other travel stories I had written since. After he pushed me many times, a couple of years back I finally did get round to sending him whatever else I had by way of travel writing. I sent it to him through his daughter Taposi. When I met him next he was rather subdued. He had not been keeping well. They had been away in Mumbai for treatment for long periods. When he did not bring up the topic himself I asked him whether he had read my recent lot of writing  – he looked at me sadly and told me that he had, but that there was no way he could combine this present lot with the earlier lot. It was as if it was written by two different people, he told me. I have grown up, I told him. Perhaps, he answered. But you have also lost the ability to tell a story, he told me sadly. That was the last time we talked about my writing. He had given up on me. I had let him down. I had disappointed him.

I met him one more time after then, in their beautiful Ashram like home up the hill in Narengi. He had been very seriously ill but had survived, Baideo told me the details. He was quiet and looked subdued; there was not his usual interested inquiry about what I had been up to since we last met – it felt as if he had moved on and was ready to call it a day; I came away very sad, with the certain knowledge that this would be the very last time I would see him.

And today he is gone. The way he went – a fall, brain haemorrhage -- his age at death, brought back memories of another death – that of my mother – not so long ago. My mother too fell and died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 86 years. Not sure where and how it hurts, but it does, very much. Not sure what about him I will miss most, surely his child-like enthusiasm and excitement over things that he found beautiful; his  dogged persistence in whatever he set out to do, his unfailing and continued encouragement to many young writers who he believed to be promising, and his amazing sense of loyalty to whatever cause he set out to promote. Rest in peace, Sir, wherever you are, the world has a lot to learn from you.

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