Tribute to Debesh Roy (1936–2020)
With the passing of Debesh Roy, Bangla fiction has lost one of its biggest luminaries whose fiction is equally loved in both West Bengal and Bangladesh. Like his Marxist peers, he always showed a criticism of conventional literary trends. His writing journey did not correspond to dominant literary styles and themes of his time, nor did he submit ever to the pressure of popular demand. He belongs to the esteemed group of Marxist writers whose fiction brought voices of the marginalized to the fore in Bangla fiction.
Debesh died of a massive cardiac arrest at the age of 84 on May 14 in Kolkata. He was born in Pabna of erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in 1936. As his family migrated to Jalpaiguri in 1943, he grew up among people carrying the wounds and nostalgia associated with dislocation due to the partition of India. He was attracted to Marxist ideas in his adolescence and got involved in active leftist politics during his university days. He became a trade union activist who joined workers’ movements and traveled almost every nook and cranny of North Bengal. This experience enriched his understanding of the lives of under-privileged people, which is reflected in his fiction.
Debesh’s first book was a short story collection entitled Debesh Roy er Golpo, published in 1969. “Refugee”, a story from this book presents with black humor the construction of identity that followed the formation of nation-states after partition. He emerged as a novelist with his debut novel, Jojati. In his fiction, he constantly broadened the horizons of realism and worked out a new mode of expression from one novel to another, combining storytelling techniques of fiction, nonfiction and even journalism.
His magnum opus, Teesta Parer Brittanto (1988), is set in Jalpaiguri in the backdrop of the construction of the teesta barrage. The novel embodies the intricate relations among river, community and nation, and tribulations and memories arising out of dislocation. Plights of the Rajbangshi community, due to development projects undertaken by the state of West Bengal, are portrayed here. It also reflects on the theme of disillusionment and depicts the discrepancy between the idealitistic ideas of nation and revolution, and the crude everyday reality. His mammoth novel Barishaler Jogen Mandal is a significant work on Dalit leader Jogen Mandal revolving around the communal politics of partition.
His notable novels include Samay Asamayer Brittanto, Kolkata O Gopal, Mofossoli Brittanto, Shilpayoner Protibedon, Nirastrikaran Keno, Shorirer Sarbassyata, Teestapuran and Manush Khun Kore Keno. His nonfiction works including Uponyash Niye, Uponyasher Notun Dhoroner Khoje put forward his thoughts about Bangla literature and language.
He worked as the editor of the magazine Porichoy for a decade and was known to have discovered many promising writers during his tenure. As a fellow of Center for Studies in Social Sciences, he researched different aspects of 18th century Bangla prose, colonial society and journalistic prose.
Known as “writer of the writers”, Debesh received Sahitya Akademi award in 1990.
Rifat Anjum Pia is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.