Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Big Brother: The Doyens of Bengali Fiction

I have always believed that children's fiction in Bengali is one of the best in the world - English included. However, since I have no knowledge of any other language, this pronouncement seems to be inspired more by parochialism than by any deep understanding of comparative literature. However, if we take the English translations of Indian languages available currently, then we have some basis in saying that at least among the Indian languages, Bengali has the richest selection of children's literature. (It is also the richest literature in general, but I will prove that later.)
Professor Shonku, Feluda and now Ghana-da have found nation-wide readership, thanks to Penguin/Puffin's efforts. Unfortunately a huge majority of the literature - like any other language - get lost in translation and these are no exceptions, despite best efforts from the translators.

I reminisced about my favourites from childhood and like most of my generation, the three most memorable characters - despite being disparate in time, age and occupation - had a lot in common. They were all 'Dadas' - as in elder brother, not the lumpen elements of Mumbai!

Ghana-da a.k.a Ghanashyam Das stayed in a mess, occupying the top floor of a building made familiar through fragmented descriptions in his 100-odd stories. He was a tall, thin gentleman with a thin moustache. He smoked heavily (but only by borrowing) and was a connoisseur of good food. Usually dressed in a vest and lungi, he had no occupation and his hours were whiled away in recounting stories from his earlier days to his 'fans' in the mess.
The stories are great examples of science fiction – though they were set in the present day. However, what was quite amazing was the amount of research that went into them. The basic premise of all the stories was grounded in accurate scientific or historic fact. The solutions or the escapes that the protagonist orchestrated were improbable but technically feasible.
Like most enduring fictional characters, each of Ghana-da’s stories were introduced with an elaborate construction of atmosphere. It is similar to how Arthur Conan Doyle started most of his Holmes tales with an interesting episode of detection, which completely stupefied Watson and there was always a simple enough explanation.
Most of Ghana-da’s stories started with a charade to get Ghana-da to recount one of his ‘experience’ or an attempt to puncture the illusion of reality around the obviously false stories. Ghana-da’s audience consisted of four main characters – Gour, Shishir, Shibu and the narrator (who remains nameless) – and each of them organized grand feasts, wrote letters from imaginary people and even hired actors to serve either of these goals.
The only anachronistic element I find in these stories is the amazing amount of pains they undertook to get Ghana-da to tell a tall tale. From the milieu of the stories, it can probably be deduced that Ghana-da was a retired (early) man of erudition who probably relieved his frustration by making himself the heroes of these stories. His cronies humour him – at considerable loss of time, money and effort – knowing and ignoring this. Probably, this is reminiscent of a time when a grand storyteller was the best source of entertainment on a Sunday afternoon. And as a raconteur, Ghana-da has no parallel.
Incidentally, all these stories had single-word titles! Phuto (Hole), Machh (Fish), Tupi (Cap), Shuto (Thread) etc.

Teni-da a.k.a Bhajahari Mukherjee stayed in Potoldanga (a North Calcutta locality) and is said to be modeled after his creator’s landlord. He eventually became a college student – but not before flunking innumerable attempts to pass the Class XII exams. He has been described to be a strapping fellow with a prominent nose and a thunderous voice (though the film version cast a lanky comedian in his role).
His stories are recounted to a group of youngsters who are his classmates, having caught up with Teni-da after his failing spree. They are Kyabla (a brilliant student, who is also the problem solver), Habul (hailing from East Bengal, his was the voice of sarcasm) and Pyalaram (the narrator, a sickly fellow who was almost as bad as Tenida in academics). All of them were forced to treat Teni-da to the famous Calcutta delicacies like aloo-kabli, roshogollas and fish chops! Teni-da is a bit of a big-hearted bully, who thought nothing of ragging his group but was always there to help them out in times of crises.
Teni-da’s adventures were mostly in the realm of fantasy but were laced with terrific humour and ended with pretty cool twists. They were peppered with the group’s suspicions about the veracity of the stories and but the end usually left them speechless.
Teni-da and his friends went on several adventures in and around Calcutta, where they solved mysteries in a lighter vein.

Felu-da a.k.a Prodosh C. Mitter is the most famous of the trio – and also the most successful professionally. Thanks to the brand name of his creator, Felu-da has reached out to the largest non-Bengali audience and has rightly become the iconic Bengali intellectual to many.
Felu-da differs from other fictional detectives in having plotlines absolutely safe for young audiences, use of word games and general knowledge in solving crimes and a very cinematic approach to the extent of the novels resembling screenplays in their description of characters and locations. There is not too much of a point in describing any other traits since most of his books are already available in English.

With these three iconic characters of Bengali fiction, we see a pattern of the Bengali ethos emerging – some of them positive, some not so.

The love for the underdog is one such enduring trait. Ghana-da and Teni-da are typical of the high potential Bengali intellectuals who wasted their potential and then either justified it through long ethical discourses or glorified it through interesting stories of what-could-have-been. Felu-da – on the other hand – is a bit of a ‘doer’, similar to his creator who was constantly compared with the underdog of Bengali cinema, the hyper-talented but temperamental Ritwik Ghatak.

For their entire list of stories, Ghana-da and Teni-da have never shown to hold any paid job. Whether it was a commentary on the employment scenario of the state or whether it was a romanticized notion of the hero not needing to answer to anybody is not very clear. Felu-da, however, was employed for a brief period of time before moving full-time into private investigation.

One common feature of the trio is the propensity to act the ‘good Samaritan’. Ghana-da’s stories are generally laced with accounts of how he helped good people and though least articulated, Ghana-da looks like the person in real life who would try to help his friends as much as possible. Teni-da is a certified do-gooder in his ‘para’ and stories of his daredevilry and compassion are well documented. Felu-da went one step further as he was known to happily forsake his fees for not-so-affluent clients.

Sarcastic humour has been the trio’s weapon – though less so for Teni-da, whose cronies seem to use it more. Ghana-da in a cynical sort of way and Felu-da in a cryptic sort have both used to poke serious fun at their friends. Lalmohan Ganguly (no relation with Sourav) a.k.a Jatayu’s malapropisms are a recurring cause and fans quote some famous lines even now.

All three of them had a very distinct atmosphere – rooted in their time. Their characters, their traits, their family & friends, their food, their location (down to their addresses), their geography and history have all been documented in such intricate and consistent detail that it is very difficult to believe that they do not actually inhabit the addresses we lovingly remember. Harry Potter – with its masterful creation of a parallel universe of magic – is the only other children’s character I can think of, whose stories are so completely etched.

Probably, the most endearing feature of these three characters has been their ability to preach without being preachy. Good always won over evil. Good food was supplemented by exercise. Sportsmanship was a regular feature. The technicalities were always well researched and correct. In the later days, even smoking was reduced on grounds of health.
All this, in the course of such interesting stories that you never felt any of it. And of course, the parents loved it as well. Not because the stories had the right messages. But they were as much hooked on to the stories as we were!
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