It all started on 7th June of this year when Cargo Publishing tweeted about their book to commemorate the 1962 Writers’ Conference held in Edinburgh,
Our 1962 Conference Book a preview! But we need your help. Anyone know who the man next to Norman Mailer is?
and it was accompanied by this photograph,
That’s not Norman Mailer thought I. This is Mailer on the left, in another shot from the same conference and there’s one of our chaps again in the background, and I knew his face. From somewhere.
Oh yes, that’s Henry Miller. I let Cargo know and they replied,
Ah, a good point noted by @JFDerry we incorrectly said Norman Mailer on that photo when we meant Henry Miller! But who is the mystery man?
Toying, I tweeted,
until I pointed out Miller, BOTH were the mystery men 🙂
Now, I think I’m pretty good at research and find it hard to pass by a challenge like this, so I was hooked. The first place to look was in any official records of the conference. A conference programme has survived, including the list of delegates,
I spent the rest of the day following leads that turned into dead ends or brought me back to my starting point. Every name on the list was examined and cross examined. I now knew what every one of these people looked like, but they didn’t resemble our man. Google Images failed to return anyone resembling him when I uploaded his part of the photograph (a neat trick if you ever want to match an image, usually). The only writer I could see any resemblance in was Khushwant Singh, but being a devout Sikh, I had never seen him clean shaven and not wearing a turban. Several hours into the afternoon of the next day, a morning spent in vain, I pleaded,
Ok, i’m spending all my time on this: RT @cargopublishing: … Anyone know who the man next to [Henry Miller, left] is?
Someone had to know, right? There were some good suggestions, but none I hadn’t already considered. For skin colour James Baldwin seemed a favourite, but our man definitely had Asian features, not least his nose. This is Baldwin,
No, it wasn’t Baldwin. Keep thinking Asian. Rabindranath Tagore? Already dead in 1941. But, what if this mystery man was just a local who got snapped with a favourite author; the conference was certainly a star-studded event. If I had been there my head would have been spinning at the sight of Burroughs, Capote, Golding, Huxley, Morgan and Russell. Is that awe he’s expressing in Miller’s presence?
Then someone suggested, is he really a white man, but there’s a trick of the light? I had taken some solace in the idea that if he was Asian and not on the delegate list, then that would likely narrow down the possibilities, even if an unknown local: as cosmopolitan as Edinburgh is today, it is reasonably safe to assume that Asian immigration was not at its peak before the 1960s (in fact UK immigration took a dip during that decade). Could he be white?
There was still that nose.
Over the next few weeks, I almost managed to ignore the nagging need to return to the hunt. I had it down to perhaps only once a day, for half-an-hour, or so. Meanwhile, others had picked up the scent. I got quite excited when an actual attendee was tracked down. They were asked if they recognised the mystery man in the photograph. No. Damn!
It is now ten weeks after starting the search.
The search is over.
I know who our chap is …
It started again yesterday evening when Cargo Publishing tweeted,
1962, Edinburgh-New Book w/ Mailer, Burroughs + more. Preorder + save. In time for @edwritersconf http://www.cargopublishing.com/blog/2012/08/15/1962-edinburgh-our-new-book-with-norman-mailer-william-burroughs-and-more/
One last go? Oh, go on then.
So, where did I get to before? Oh, yes: likely Asian: the nose. But, only one Asian on the delegate list: Khushwant Singh. Khushwant Singh. Right, let’s find out some more about Khushwant Singh.
So, I started reading about Khushwant Singh. What an incredible life!
Particularly useful in reading about Khushwant Singh’s personality and pastimes was Chapter 2: Khushwant Singh, The Man and the Writer from History and narrative techniques in the novels of Khushwant Singh by Boni D. Joshi 2010, PhD thesis, Saurashtra University. http://hdl.handle.net/10603/716
It turns out that through various high-powered jobs, he was well travelled, more than once in the UK for protracted periods, a bit too anarchic to hold a position for too long, and quite a drinker. He partied hard, enjoying “the privileges of diplomatic life, invitations to the Buckingham Palace, embassy receptions, unlimited supply of duty-free liquor” with, “Eminent journalists like: Kingsley Martin, Harold Evans, William Clarke, David Astor; writers like: C.P. Snow, Prof. C.E.M. Joad; and poets: Auden, Louis MacNeice, Dylan Thomas;”, developing himself a bit of an “image as a merry Sardar who is also a drunkard and a womanizer”.
Perhaps he wasn’t such a devout Sikh after all. Does this mean he might have eschewed the Sikh traditions of remaining unshaven and wearing uncut hair in a turban? Is it Khushwant Singh in the photograph? Hard to tell because is but one photograph of him as a young man, and no more until he is significantly older.
The indicators were pointing to him, but the more I read of his actual writing, the less convinced I became; here was a sincere and devout Sikh. A piss-head perhaps, but an honourable one, to the last. Plus, staring at his photographs and peering through that beard, at his mouth, that nose, the curve of ears and cheeks, every line of his face, I just could not reconcile him with our man. It was not him, so I read more.
You join me deeply enthralled in his writing … I am now reading Turban Adventures by Khushwant Singh in 2011, on http://www.sikhchic.com/ (cool name). I hit this passage,
When I first went to England, I was more concerned with befriending English girls than studying law. My only apprehension was that my turban and beard would put them off. Fortunately, it was the other way round. My turban and beard made me appear a genuine Indian, while my clean-shaven colleagues were dismissed as brown versions of English boys.
Although referring to a time much earlier than the 1962 Writers’ Conference, this seemed to confirm his unwavering adherence to Sikh custom. Then, further on there was this,
At a writers’ conference in Glasgow I found myself in the same lodging house with a few writers, including Bangladesh poet [NAME REDACTED]. After making sure that I was not hot-headed, he would greet me every morning: “Shordarji, aap ko boro buj gaya.”
Possible. A different conference. Another year. But, really?
Let’s look into this: an alternative version of this anecdote in another article by Khushwant Singh, To Bangladesh with love on http://www.tribuneindia.com/
My introduction to Hasna’s family had an interesting start. Long before Bangladesh became independent, I ran into her father [NAME REDACTED], a distinguished poet, at a writers’ conference in Edinburgh. We were lodged in the same boarding house along with other writers and poets.
We introduced ourselves to each other. On the first day he was a little cautious in his approach towards me. Then he realised I was a harmless sardar. He greeted me in his Bengali accent: “Shordarji, aap ko boro baj gaya”. I acknowledged my personal clock had struck 12. “It is a beeg joke in my country”, he explained to others. We became friends and sat alongside each other all the sessions.
Excusable mistake to write Glasgow in the first article 49 years after the event. Furthermore, Bangladesh gained its independence at the end of 1971: does 9 years equate to “long before”? Let’s go with it, but who is this guy he’s talking about, Hasna’s father?
I Google his name. I read a few of the page clippings.
I click on Google Images.
After ten weeks I am staring at our man.
and here he is again,
There is no doubt in my mind. Well a tad. I tweet a hint at my discovery. The conversation goes like this,
@cargopublishing I KNOW WHO IT IS 🙂 (99%)
@cargopublishing the mystery man in the 1962 photo with Henry Miller.
I’d better make sure. Perhaps there was something in that exchange mentioned in the articles. I Google, “aap ko boro baj gaya” to find a translation. Instead I find out that Khushwant Singh had also recounted the event in his book, The Sunset Club: Analects of the Year 2009,
My Hindi isn’t that good. I can introduce myself (“Mera nam JF Derry hai”) and enquire after someone’s health (“Aap ka kya haal hai?”). I used to be able to count to 100. “Baara”, that’s a number. 12 isn’t it? “Bajey” is the time, so “baara bajey” must be 12 o’clock, which is what he meant by, “my personal clock had struck 12”. And “ji” I know is a term of respect, Panditji, Guruji, Shankarji, Zakirji, Johnji, etc. So, what’s a Shordar? Google: sardar/shordar is “A title to denote princes, noblemen, and other aristocrats”. So I know he’s laying it on a bit thick, but now I’m stuck. How much of this is Hindi and how much Bengali?
Hang on! There’s a Bengali Take Away just around the corner. 9-45pm on a Wednesday. Yes, they’d still be open. Off I trot to Abdul‘s of Morningside, Edinburgh. The guys in there were wonderfully patient with my pronunciation, but it quickly became obvious this was all in Hindi. There’s a Nepali restaurant at the top of the hill. Leg it!
Again, lovely people, but unable to help; Hindi not their mother tongue. A little further, after freaking out a couple of random strangers on the street on the off chance that they were fluent Hindi speakers, I make it as far as The Clay Oven Indian Restaurant at Holy Corner. Despite being fluent in Hindi and English, the difficulty is in expressing the joke to me, in an understandable way. It’s a play on words and goes something like,
Now you’re in trouble!
The Big Thing has already happened.
I’ve already had my Big Thing.
and then the
My personal clock has struck 12.
Definitely loses something in translation, although if anyone can have a better go at it than me, please drop a note in the comments.*
What is clear is that Khushwant Singh was being quite rude to this guy, no doubt in jest, but juxtaposing “Shordarji” and “boro buj gaya” I’m told is really quite insulting.
Interesting, but it doesn’t confirm the identity of our man. However, I didn’t tell you that the guys in Abdul‘s and The Clay Oven instantly knew who he was when I showed them his photograph with Henry Miller. You see, in Bengal and across the Indian subcontinent, this man is still revered even though he died in 1976, aged 73, but only after a celebrated life as a, “poet, songwriter, prose writer, folklore collector and radio personality. He is commonly known in Bangladesh as Polli Kobi (The Rural Poet), for his faithful rendition of Bengali folklore in his works.”
This man was such a great poet, his poem Kabar (The Grave) was placed in Bengali textbooks while he was still a student of Calcutta University. Just think about it, your writing is added to the syllabus, while you are still a student yourself. The title to this article is taken from a line in his poem Pratidan. His Nokshi Kanthar Maath (Field of the Embroidered Quilt) is considered a masterpiece and has been translated into many different languages, and Gobindapur in Kolkata hold a fortnightly festival each year in January to celebrate his birth.
Why was he standing with Miller? Because he really was part of the conference, not a bystander nor adoring Miller fan. He accompanied Khushwant Singh to all the sessions, who seems to have dealt with him with less respect than one might expect. Amazing is that probably no-one was truly aware of his fame back in his homeland, that he was more famous to more people as a household name than the rest of the conference delegation put together (population of India and Bangladesh in 1961 was 489,776,918).
If there is one thing that a conference can do, it is to heighten awareness of people and culture from different nations. The 1962 Writers’ Conference collected the world of literature to Edinburgh, as now does the Edinburgh Book Festival every year. That is it’s legacy. What a shame that a few of those pioneering authors have slipped through the net. But, I’m bloody proud to have brought one back to life, especially one as highly thought of and loved as this, rather well-known it turns out, mystery man. 10 weeks … it was worth it.
A few videos follow, a two-part recording of him performing his own poetry, a home movie shot by his daughter Hasna and a documentary. As you might expect from his reputation and renown, there is quite a lot of material available online about him – I recommend you find out more.
Who is he?
His family name is Mollah, but everyone knows him simply as
* UPDATE: I met an Indian journalist at the Edinburgh book festival this year and other than confirming this translation, he told me his editor used to be Khushwant Singh, and also provided some insight into the underlying humour in their banter. Evidently most jokes about Sikh revolve around the idea that 12 o’clock noon is when they go a bit mad because of wearing a turban at the hottest part of the day, although this account gives an alternative aetiology:
A popular category of Sardar jokes is the “12 o’clock jokes”, which imply that Sikhs are in their senses only at night. Preetinder Singh explains the origin of the “12 o’clock joke” as follows: The real reason for the “12 O’clock Association” with Sikhs comes from Nadir Shah‘s invasion of India. His troops passed through Punjab after plundering Delhi and killing hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims, and taking hundreds of women as captive. The Sikhs decided to attack Nadir Shah’s camp and free the captive women. Being outnumbered by Nadir Shah’s huge army, they could not afford to make a frontal attack. Instead, they used to make midnight guerrilla raids on Nadir Shah’s camp, free as many captive women as possible, and return them to their homes in order to “restore the diginity of the Hindu community”. In jest, the Hindus would say that the Sikhs are in their senses only at night. This later became the trait of a widespread category of derisive jokes. Singh opines: “Hindus started referring to the relatively neutral 12 o’clock, rather than midnight” to avoid annoying the armed Sikhs, and the “final result was the safe, bald statement, ‘It is 12 o’clock’ shorn of all reference to its very interesting history…..When Hindus crack this joke, they are oblivious to the fact that had the Sikhs not intervened, their womenfolk would have been dishonoured and taken into exile”. [Wiki]
BENGALI Rhymes SUNG BY POET JASIM UDDIN Recorded by Libary of Congress, Washington DC, July 24, 1958
A rare film of Poet Jasim Uddin by Hasna J. Moudud 1974 and earlier collections
Jasimuddin poet of Bengal – a film by Khan Ata