Every now and then during the covid-19 lockdown, Naku-babu would call. At the end of our conversation, he would always say the same thing, “Come by one of these days when all this is over.”
I had a standard response as well. “Yes, of course. And please be careful now.”
Naku-babu was in his 90s. Even after the lockdown ended I did not feel I could risk meeting him. But I was often tempted because his house in a by-lane of north Kolkata was the most marvellous museum of everyday objects.
Sushil Kumar Chatterjee, or Naku-babu, collected things. They filled every nook and cranny of his modest home, turning it into an old curiosity shop. There were ancient spool projectors, huge boxy speakers made of American pine, books dating back to World War I eaten through by silverfish, shellac records with the voices of Netaji Subhas Bose and Winston Churchill, a cuckoo clock, old microscopes and sundials and wooden binoculars from ships. The wall was covered with black and white and sepia-tinted photographs, lanterns hung from the ceiling.
Naku-babu would be perched in their midst on a creaking easy chair, a white-bearded lean man in a lungi, a Prospero on his magical island. I had thought of him as an eccentric old man, the kind who rummages around auction houses hoping to stumble upon some wonderful rare artefact. But Naku-babu did not collect things because they were valuable first editions of anything. “Things come to me because they want to reveal themselves,” he told me. “See that old table lamp behind you. Someone gave it to me. They knew I will take care of it.” I listened politely, if a bit impatiently. I just wanted a quick list of “10 most valuable objects” from him. An hour later, I was no closer to my objective. Naku-babu had travelled back some 80-90 years to his childhood.
“My first love was nature,” he said. “I started by collecting stones. I would wander around the jungle looking at birds and butterflies. I would listen to the sound of trees, study the capillaries on leaves. Do you know the sound of leaves on different trees is different? Like the smell of the skin of different women. I would sit by the Subarnarekha river on moonlit nights listening to the sound of the jungle. Nature has its own sound. We have destroyed the balance with the noise we generate.”
He had worked with sound for 75 years, building amplifiers and setting up audio systems in movie halls. He remembered how in the old days they would have a water tank under the amplifier. “We would raise and lower the water level to control the distortion,” he chuckled. When the famous singer Dilip Roy would go for concerts, Naku-babu would carry the amplifier on his shoulders. He jerry-rigged radio receivers to listen to Netaji Subhas Bose’s clandestine broadcasts.
He still had drawers full of old radio valves. Sound still thrilled him. “Look at this wooden bell from a cow,” he said. “You can hear it from so far away in the field. Have you heard the rakhal (goatherd) boy’s flute? That sound vibrates in the heat.” I sheepishly admitted I had never really paid much attention to either and wished he would get to the list of 10 objects I wanted.
Naku-babu’s father died when he was 14. But his mother never tried to stifle his passion. In 1942, when he got involved with the Quit India movement, she gave him her blessing. But in 1960, when he had the chance to work in Holland, his mother said, “Khoka (son), if you go, who will look after me?” So he stayed back, without any regrets.
But he never stayed put. The road called out to him. He hit the road on his motorcycle in 1948 and didn’t stop until 2000. He remembered leopards crossing the road in front of him. “On a night filled with fireflies I saw these Santhal women were walking on the aal (the narrow ridge between plots of farmland). How beautifully they moved—all stepping on and off the aal together. They gave me some hariya liquor in a bowl made of saal leaves and said, “Ne, babu, kha (Have some, babu).”
Some of the objects were things he collected on his travels. He brought back stones from Amarnath and Manasarovar. But he didn’t keep them as mementos. His relationship with objects was entirely different. He remembered boarding a train that was running late, with his parents. It was pre-independence India. The engine driver was a white man in a sola pith helmet and white pants and shirt. “He drove the train like a demon and reached Howrah station on time. After that he got down and he just kept looking at the engine as he wiped it down.” I stared at him quizzically, trying to figure out the point of the story. “You see, it was his object of love,” he said softly. “How tenderly he kept wiping it down.”
I had long learnt to regard objects as things to be used. We love them only as long as we can use them. After that they are relegated to dusty attics and kabaddiwalas (scrap dealers). We might keep a hand-knitted baby sweater out of sentiment but ultimately, in a Marie Kondo world, it makes sense to get rid of the clutter. But for Naku-babu the objects hummed with life, not nostalgia or retro-chic. “They are not lifeless. Those who had originally bought them must have loved them,” he said. “That love remains. As I clean them, I get some of it. Ojotney chhilo aabar jotno korchhi (They were in neglect. Now I am giving them some loving care again).”
He bestowed that same care on everything that came his way, whether it was a calling bell from an indigo plantation (his father worked for the indigo planters) or a compass-cum-rose-clock someone happened to bring for him from England. My idea of a list of 10 unique objects made no sense to him. Everything had its unique story and he was the caretaker of the stories.
In that sense, even describing his home as a museum made little sense. “I don’t like museums,” he said flatly. “They are too artificial. You won’t find life there.” It seemed an odd thing to say for a man who sat surrounded by things that belonged to dead people. But he didn’t see any contradiction at all. However, he was 93, and he knew time was running out. “I don’t worry about what will happen after me. If I keep worrying about that, I won’t be able to do anything.” Though everything existed on a “memory map”, he was trying to finally catalogue them.
Last week, I read that Naku-babu, the collector of all things great and small, had died at the age of 94. His son told the Anandabazar Patrika newspaper they would try to take care of his things as best they could but wondered if someone, whether the government or a private enterprise, would step up to the task.
I hope they do. That collection certainly deserves a home. However, I also know in a museum they will just become things once more. But still, for a little while they had known a second life because a man named Naku-babu had opened his home and heart to them. “I actually have nothing,” Naku-babu had told me, sitting in a 10x15ft room crammed with objects of all shapes and sizes. “These things came to me with love. They remain with me out of love. One day if someone loves them more, they will leave me.”
It amazed me then. It still amazes me. Naku-babu had understood what most of us cannot grasp—that you could love things without feeling the need to possess them.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.