Reflections & Stray Thoughts
By HQ Chowdhury
Publisher: Blue Pencil, New Delhi
Price (Amazon): ₹314 (Paperback); 0 (Free Kindle)
The SOY regulars know HQ Chowdhury as the author of “Incomparable SD Burman”, which is regarded as the definitive biography of Burman Dada. That book establishes Chowdhury as a great fan of SD Burman, and one who has a deep insight into the film and non-film songs of yore of both Hindi and Bengali. But it was entirely devoted to his subject, and didn’t give a glimpse of the author himself, except that he was from Dhaka.
“Reflections & Stray Thoughts”, as the title indicates, is a collection of articles – 40 in all, each about four pages. Thus these are not ponderous. Chowdhury wields a facile pen, his subjects are interesting, and this makes the book immensely enjoyable. To be sure, SD Burman occurs quite prominently in his reminiscences, but Chowdhury is not judgemental if someone does not share the same respect for the great music director. In the article “The Ultimate Music Director”, when the author once asked Anil Biswas, “What do you think of SD Burman?”, he replied, “Nothing to write home about”. The Bhishma Pitamah of Hindi film music made some further unflattering observations about SD Burman. Yet Chowdhury has no hesitation in describing Anilda as one who gave film music composition an exemplary creative path. Finally, after discussing a number of the greatest music directors, he concludes that this discussion could be endless.
“The Sachin Dev Burman – Manna Dey Saga” covers a territory familiar to the regulars of this blog. Despite being very close to SD Burman, and despite having been given some of his greatest songs by him, Manna Dey carried a grudge that SD Burman regarded Rafi as a more versatile singer. Sometimes Manna Dey was asked to rehearse some song to find that it was meant for another singer. Much later he reconciled and acknowledged that Rafi was a class apart from the others.
“Sachin Dev Burman aka Sachin Karta” is a pure eulogy without any trace of malice that the presence of a third person might have created. Chowdhury observes that such was Sachin Karta’s love for the folk and the countryside that his rigorous classical training under a plethora of gurus could not dilute the essence of his hinterland, Comilla, now in Bangladesh. He did not yield to pressure from producers or stars to take any particular singer. He stuck to his judgement about which song would sound best by which singer. Thus, all the major playback singers got at least some songs which are a landmark in their career. “Here was at once a composer of immense variety and depth, an inimitable singer. International by art, Bengali at heart.” SD Burman is mentioned in passing in the article “The Singing Bengalis in Bombay”. He is also acknowledged as being the “alchemist” for the boost in the careers of several singers. SD Burman is discussed in at least two more articles: (i) In “Covid-19 and Lockdown”, Chowdhury describes how during the lockdown his companion was Blue Pencil’s “Guide, The Film: Perspectives”, and (ii) “Rabindranath Tagore and Sachin Dev Burman”.
If you get the impression that the book is an overdose of SD Burman, it is far from that. Chowdhury has an eclectic taste. Coming from the sub-continent, he is naturally a big fan of cricket. His article on Zaheer Abbas is very perceptive, and you develop an empathy for the flashy star despite his test record not being commensurate with his talent and his overall first class record. “Of Cricket and Films of the Subcontinent” describes how the two glamorous fields intersect each other. Some cricketers’, such as Salim Durrani and Sandeep Patil’s obsession to act in films brought a ruin to their cricketing career. You see the sensitive nature of the author and his love for sports in the article “A Disturbing Week!”. While remembering the two stars – Irfan and Rishi Kapoor – who left us in quick succession, his thoughts go to Chuni Goswami, the legendary footballer who also passed away about the same time. Chuni took up cricket after the end of his football career, and showed his talents in the new game, too, by leading Bengal to the final of Ranji Trophy in 1971-72. Chowdhury mentions that Chuni, along with PK (Banerjee) and Balaram comprised the great trinity of the Golden Era of the Indian football in the 1950s and 60s. And in a poignant reminder to the transience of human life I recall Chowdhury’s line in the article, “Now only Balaram lives” – alas Balaram, too, has since passed away.
The first article, “Back to Square One”, sets the tone of the book, when the author’s thoughts literally stray all over, from his Man Friday who brings him morning snacks and tea, to sports stars from cricket to football to tennis, to his recent favourites Scent of a Woman, Saving Private Ryan, to Madhubala, Waheeda Rahman, Suchitra Sen, to the songs of Harry Belafonte, Jose Feliciano, Beatles, to Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Faiyaz Khan, Mukesh, Talat, Rafi, Hemant Kumar, SD Burman, to Bangla and English books, to English translations of international authors, to cartoons, humour, to RK Narayan, to Filmfare. In the same vein, besides the articles I have described earlier, Chowdhury continues his reflections and stray thoughts later in the book on Rituparno Ghosh, Mehdi Hassan, Classical Music in Dhaka, Harmonium etc.
I would especially mention two articles which are in a very different vein. “Hachiko” is about a dog who would see off his master every morning at Tokyo Shibuya station and greet him in the evening when he returned from work. This went on for two years, but his master failed to show up one evening. He had apparently died, but Hachiko continued to go to the station and wait for his master for ten years until he (Hachiko) died. The authorities have installed a statue of Hachiko at the Shibuya station. Pet lovers would find this story very touching and, if they visit Tokyo, I am sure they would not miss to visit this statue.
The last article “The Only Guru” is about one Kabir Bhai (not his actual name). Naturally Chowdhury’s description of Kabir Bhai did not please me – “Kabir Bhai hailed from Bihar but as ‘Biharis’ then did not have a good reputation he identified himself as hailing from Katihar which, of course, is also in Bihar.” Despite Kabir Bhai’s shady character and his uneducated background, his taste for music, knowledge of cricket and analytical ability were impeccable. After many years the author’s mother received a packet at her door containing several items that Kabir Bhai had stolen from her, and a note of apology from him. The note described that he had given up thievery. He got a BA degree in Hotel Management and worked overseas for over 40 years. Kabir Bhai further said that he was on the look out for other houses where he had committed theft so that he could return the stolen items, but he could not locate them. You are with the author when he says, “Today, I am in awe of him when I think of him.”
If you love books, movies, music, sports and things around you, you would love this book. It is a very personal account, and you get to know HQ Chowdhury intimately. But he does not impose himself unlike some other writers who write their reminiscences of celebrities. You become an admirer of HQ Chowdhury for his amazing range of interests and his knowledge. He also happens to be the founder of Bangladesh’s first R&D science laboratory and also an Emeritus Associate of American Association of Physicists in Medicine. In ‘Author’s Note’, he describes the book as ”light reading”, but it would set you upon looking up many books, films and songs of Bengali, Hindi and English. A worthy acquisition.