After waiting for some time, I rang the bell again.
It was a modest house in the midst of a busy lane, and the locality was bustling with activity. Back in his days, he used to sit on the front porch of this house to look at the kids play. This was where he used to derive his inspirations from.
The door opened, and there in front of our eyes, stood the sculptor of every Bengali’s childhood. “Follow me,” Narayan Debnath smiled meekly.
He led us to his room. It was a small quaint room. Inside there was a large clothed table with a canvas, and a pile of books and magazines placed next to it. Almost like trophies. On the opposite side of the room, there was his actual trophy cabinet. There were mementos from all kinds of events and occasions. In fact, there was one trophy shaped like Batul-the-great. “Batul celebrated his 50th year last year, so it was gifted to me then,” his eyes gleamed.
One thing that stuck out from his trophy cabinet was the framed certificate of his D.Lit. degree. Cool fact: He is the first and only comics-artist from India to receive this degree! (And that’s a big deal, just ask your dad)
Anirbanda and I sat down at the sofa as Debnath himself sat on his seat: a thickly cushioned revolving chair, covered with a towel. At 92, he is a little hard of hearing, so both of us had to speak out a little.
We began to speak with him about the book fair in general. For the next two hours, he took us down his memory lane and spoke of all things personal and professional. He spoke slowly but enunciated every word he spoke. There was no way you’d believe that you were talking to a man 92 years of age!
He spoke candidly about how he took decisions in life. Stressing about the importance of staying connected to one’s roots, he spoke of how he never left “Shuktara” – the magazine which made him popular and his comics ubiquitous – for a larger media house which approached him only in his prime. He mentioned how some of his friends had advised him to join the bigger media house. They had told him that he wouldn’t be able to make it big unless he joined them. “But I did turn out to be alright, don’t you think?” Debnath smiled. I nearly saw him winking when he said that.
Speaking about the generations that he has seen over his life time, he thinks that children of the earlier generations were very simple. It was this simplicity that most of his comics were based upon. A class prefect, eager to impress the teacher while putting others into trouble, became Keltu-da. A boy eager to exert his authority and look cool, became Haanda. “Kids today are really precocious,” Debnath sighed. “They are not that simple anymore; they only keep worrying about their careers!”
He spoke at length about his memories about the Boimela, which you can find on this link.
When it was almost time to go, I nervously ask him, “May I request something?”
“Can you… Sketch a little something for us?”
“Hmm, alright. Do you want Batul? That’s what everyone wants.”
“I prefer Nonte-Phonte though.”
And then he took a minute, and with shaky hands, sketched this:
Before leaving, Anirbanda asked Debnath Babu, “Do you have a message for the younger generation? This will go into the blog.”
Very humbly, he replied, “See, I don’t want to be pretentious; I just don’t think I am worthy enough of advising young people what to do.”
I wouldn’t say that meeting Narayan Debnath was a dream come true, for I never really dreamt of meeting him. I will rather say that meeting him was like magic, for I still cannot believe that it happened.