I met Manju Aunty (Manju Dasgupta) as my friend Subhorup’s mother at his place. She lovingly signed her book for me and said, she would be happy if I reviewed the book. I read her book When Your Granny was a Little Girl and fell in love with her and her writing. I wanted every grandmother to write a similar book for her grand kids. In this interview, I discover some more facets of her dynamic personality.
Manju Dasgupta Interview
Tell us something about your background, where you grew up, what did you study and what other things you do?
Manju Dasgupta: I was born on 4th. July 1938 and brought up in Kolkata in a joint family. Both my mother and father belonged to joint families with deep village roots. So in spite of being a city girl, I was well-connected to village life and visited the two villages every year.
My mother did not get the opportunity to go to school. So she was determined to give her daughters the best possible education. I went to a good school – St.John’s Diocesan Girls High School. Went to elite colleges like Lady Brabourne and Presidency College. I pursued History as a Discipline at the Master’s level and passed out in 1962 standing first in the first class winning the Jadavpur University gold medal for History. I have taught for more than 30 years in reputed girls colleges in Kolkata, Darjeeling, and Mumbai. Now I do a lot of reading and writing and a bit of social work. I try to promote peace and happiness around me. Believe in the Kenyan activist Wangari Mathai’s principle “Think globally and act locally”.
I also like to cook and knit.
When did you start writing and what inspired you to write?
In my teens when I read Anne Frank’s Diary I was so moved that I also started keeping a diary calling it “Anamika” or Anonymous. I treated it like a friend with whom I shared my innermost thoughts. It is a pity that I have lost it. Later I often wrote articles, short stories and poems some of which were published in local papers, I never seriously thought of pursuing writing due to constraints of time (I had a full-time college job and two sons to bring up) but more because my husband was and is an established and acclaimed writer. I probably suffered from an inferiority complex that is hard to define.
What kind of books do you read and who are your favorite authors?
I love to read Letters of eminent people, Buddhist literature, self-help books like “you can heal your life “by Louise Hay, books on Travel, Thrillers, Romantic and Historical novels, poetry both Bengali and English. Also, love to read a lot of foreign literature in translation. I have many favorite authors but Im will mention only a few whom I read and re-read. They are – Rabindranath Tagore, Jibananda Das, Annadasankar Ray and a few others. I regularly read Nichiren Daishonin’s letters. (A 13th.century sage from Japan) to his disciples which are applicable even today, and Daisaku Ikeda’s New Human Revolution as a daily inspiration. But I can unhesitatingly mention the name of my most favorite author-Rabindranath Tagore. He is my friend, philosopher, and guide.
I know you have a huge library at your place in Kolkata. How and when did you start building it? Did you inherit it from your parents or was it built from scratch?
Apart from a few books gifted to us, on our birthdays (maybe 14 or 20) the entire collection was built by us, book by book. When I got married in 1962, my husband had only one book case full of books. We still have that wooden book case which accommodates about 200 books. In the last 52 years, it has become a library of 7000 books. Don’t ask me how. We did not do it consciously as we are just book lovers. We went on collecting books for ourselves and gifted our sons, books on every occasion.
I still remember that I had gifted a shorter version of the Encyclopaedia to my eldest son Subhorup when he was only 6 months old. It was a discounted series accompanied by a free set of 6 books by Rudyard Kipling. My son used to play with them long before he could read them. He called them ‘my red books’ very proudly.
This son of mine grew up to be a voracious reader when he grew up! Even today he reads the newspaper packets in which groceries come from small shops. I also have the habit of reading hoardings and labels on bottles. Printed word is meant to be read, is my mantra.
How difficult is it to let go of your huge personal collection? Do you worry if these books from your personal collection would land up in worthy hands or not?
I do not know of a stronger or more effective word than “difficult” to describe how we felt to dismantle our personal library. The books were like our children and had many memories attached to them. But it was a conscious decision. We did not want to die worrying what would happen to our books. The process of parting with our books had started quite early when we realized that our children were not really keen on having our Bengali books. It was a treasure, but we are able to accept the reality and were able to donate more than a thousand books, many of being first editions and many having the signatures of authors, to the Seminar library of the Bengali department of the Burdwan University.
It is a great consolation that these books are being used by teachers and research scholars. We still have the letter of appreciation we got from the Vice-Chancellor. That was as early as 2003. Ten years later when our sons persuaded us to give up our independent living and start living with them that we really began to worry about our books. We informed all our book lover friends and relatives to come and take as many books as they wanted. We got a tremendous response. A lady came from Hyderabad came and chose about 500 books over three days. My sons took a lot of books of their choice. We donated almost 2000 books to Rammohun museum library.
Thanks to a post on Facebook many book lovers came to our books and took books of their choice. Some of them paid us token money and some even vegetables and fruits. We also met quite a few bright young students in the process. So, all is not lost. We are still left with about a thousand books which we would like to keep for our grand children.
Since the time I have read your book, I have been telling all the grandmothers I know to write such a book for their grandchildren. I think this is the best gift you can leave behind for them. Have your book inspired other grand parents, especially grand mothers to write for their grand children?
I am fortunate that my books were liked by one and all. But I do not know whether it has inspired any grand parent to write a similar book.
How important are visuals in a children’s book?
I think they are very important because children connect to pictures first and words later.
I thought your book is like a personal history that next generations would see as part of a common history. What are your thoughts on this?
Ideally, I fully agree with you provided more and more grand parents across the country write about their childhood experiences for posterity to share. I was inspired to write this book after reading a Japanese book called “Totto Chan “where the author writes about the adventure and joy of school which was housed in an abundant train compartment in the railway yard.
What do you think about the available children’s literature in India? What are few things that we need to do to bring children closer to books early in life?
Plenty of children’s books are available in Bengali. I am sure it is true of other regional kinds of literature as well. Moreover, the National Book Trust is translating children’s literature in different regional languages. There was no dearth of children’s literature when we were young and I am sure there is none even now.
If a child sees his or her parents reading the child will automatically pick up the habit of reading quite early in life. Children’s books should be attractive, colorful and with bold prints
Tell us about the next series of the book that you are penning down?
I had originally planned to write a Trilogy based on my life experiences. You see I am a person totally devoid of imagination. I can only write about my own experiences. The name of the second book in the series is “when your granny entered her teens” and the third book “when your grandma met your grandpa”. I have finished writing the second one. But it is visually not as strong as the first one. I will have to work on it. Meanwhile, I have finished writing another book of a different genre named “Mother-in-love”. It is a book on my mother-in-law. And her relationship with the entire universe, I being a part of it.
The Bengali version of my first book is also ready to go to the press.