A Car for Mr. Chatterjee! by Vandana Kumar
2020 was definitely the year that changed things for us and overnight at that. The year of the pandemic was cruel not just for the loss of lives and livelihood that one witnessed in general, but also terribly unkind to the world of art and cinema. As if the deaths of childhood heartthrobs like Rishi Kapoor to consummate actors like Irrfan Khan was not bad enough a blow, the country lost Soumitra Chatterjee on November 15, 2020. Undoubtedly, Soumitra Chatterjee was one of the finest actors that Bengal has produced. Too many favorite characters from his œuvre to name one – but on insistence I would name Apu and Feluda and then there is Amal in ‘Charulata’! Though off course I didn't know him personally but my meeting him as a young girl at my residence in Kolkata made me feel that way forever.
It was the early 1980s in Kolkata and my father was on the lookout for a buyer for his Ambassador car that was a good 10 years old.
A Bengali gentleman in ‘Dunlop India’ who happened to know the actor told my father that Soumitra Chatterjee was interested in it for his son. My father couldn't believe it and said “Are you sure? You did mention it is not new right?” The gentleman said that the actor did not want his son to get spoilt and wanted him to first start with a used one. The car was in excellent condition and Baba was only too thrilled that he would get to meet not only a star, but an actor associated with the great Satyajit Ray. He asked this gentleman to fix up a meeting with Mr. Chatterjee. Baba and Soumitra Chatterjee spoke over the telephone, and I really don't know what Baba said but apparently they discussed Bengali cinema and the next thing I knew was that he agreed to drop in at our place for drinks before finalizing the deal.
It wasn't a flat being sold – just an ordinary car and that too secondhand. We couldn't imagine someone of his stature would take the effort to meet over drinks for something that could have been done with a cheque being sent across.
It was an evening that stretched from the original ‘snacks and one drink’ to dinner. I remember how down to earth and likeable he was. No airs about him and he seemed to discuss lot of regular stuff – like people he knew in our society flats, Park Street and what a fantastic location my father’s office (Dunlop India Ltd) was in.
They say that the only secrets well-kept are the ones you just tell yourself. I naturally shared this bit of news with my best friend in the building, naively expecting it to not spread anywhere. My mother was not in town and my father was wondering how three neighboring families descended at our place. There were a lot of curious folks by now standing near the entrance of our apartment including the chowkidar. My father suspected I might have had something to do with it. There was just one sofa and no place for me. Seeing this, Soumitra Chatterjee asked me to come sit next to him. I could see my father beaming. He seemed to silently suggest that I initiate some conversation with him. Tongue tied and utterly fascinated; I forgot all the things I planned to ask him.
For me after that his films didn’t matter – good bad or ugly. He was the Bengali megastar who praised us for maintaining the Ambassador so well. He was the down to earth fellow asking about how the building maintenance was done and if car parking was an issue in this housing cooperative. He was the person who now had our car and most importantly the feeling of having sat next to the star lingered for a long time to come. I was eternally grateful to all the curious unwanted neighbors who got to know about his visit and turned up to meet him. Had they not turned up, there would have been ample space on the adjacent sofas and the question of sitting right next to Soumitra Chatterjee would never have arisen.
The next day I enjoyed showing off in school about how we sold our car to Mr. Soumitra Chatterjee. As I said, for me the loss will always feel different.
Vandana Kumar is Delhi based teacher of French and an internationally published poet.