Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Books I Grew Up On... Part Two

Here is the second instalment on my favourite authors in Bengali.
This one is about the stalwarts whose productive years preceded my reading years by some distance. So, I read most of their works through anthologies and old Puja annuals (as lovingly described by Nilendu in the comments on Part One).
I am bypassing three authors of those times, about whom I had written before – Premendra Mitra, Narayan Gangopdhyay and Leela Majumdar.

One thing that is common with all these authors is that none of them wrote exclusively for children. In fact, their output for children and young adults is only a small part of their total. I will restrict myself to only that.
Of course, the debate on what is suitable for children will continue.

Rajshekhar Basu (his real name) could well be the starting point of that debate because theoretically, his writings were loaded with topics not suitable for children. But I will circumvent that as a personal choice of just loving his works as a young adult.
Given the impossibly high level of his output, it is quite dangerous to try and identify a landmark work for Parashuram. Nevertheless, I will stick my neck out and put forward Bhushandir Mathey as that work. Felicity of language, depth of social observation, sophistication of humour and inventiveness of plot are all of such high order that the novella surely qualifies as one of the most accomplished pieces of literature in any language.
The plot is the result of sheer genius at work, in which three births each of a husband and his wife get engaged in a hilarious love polygon. Imagine, you dying and falling in love with a ghost of a Swedish pole dancer. You wife has also died and you find out that the ghost of a Texan cowboy is trying to woo her. A British nurse of the 19th century has a soft corner for you while your wife is attracted towards an French Impressionist artist. Complicated? Not yet. Because you are the reincarnation of the Texan cowboy, who is the reincarnation of the French artist. Your wife is the reincarnation of the pole dancer, who is the born-again version of the British nurse! Woo-hoo! Now we are talking confusion!
Satyajit Ray’s admiration for this particular work came through when it is discovered in Darjeeling Jomjomat that Lalmohan-babu had played the role of Nadu Mallick in a performance of the play and Feluda says, “You never told me that you played one of the most impressive characters in Bengali literature.”
Apart from this, very modern themes like hypochondria (Chikitsa Sankat), stock scams (Sri Sri Siddheswari Pvt Ltd) and pre-marital search & bonding (Kochi Sansad) came across in his works.
Satyajit Ray made two films based on Parashuram’s stories – Mahapurush and Parash Pathor – both wonderful examples of satire, one rooted in reality (god men and their cons) and the other in fantasy (a philosopher’s stone in modern society).

Shibram Chakrabarti
Shibram was a humourist par excellence, being the only one who extensively used puns in his writing and specialized in outrageous solutions for the problems of his protagonists.
One of his most famous novels is Bari Thekey Paliye of which, an excellent treatise is available here. The thrill of a runaway kid is captured brilliantly in the novel as well as its film version.
His most famous characters were two brothers – Harshabardhan and Gobardhan. They appeared in a series of short stories (which are not very well anthologised) in and around Calcutta, indulging in the general pastime of being merry. One of my favourites is their adventure in Paragon and Paradise (which were two erstwhile restaurants in North Calcutta, famous for their juices), where Harshabardhan takes a bet with Gobardhan if the latter can drink 6 glasses of juice in one minute. (He does, by a hilarious technique.)
Of course, his puns were legendary, still quoted once in a while and quite untranslatable for most part. “Chhilam mukto aramey Muktaram Babu Street-ey” and “Bhalo basha pawa bhalobasha pawar thekeo kothin” are two that spring to my mind.
Maybe, I should have a contest on how many Shibram puns the readers can come up with!

Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay
If Bibhutibhushan had written only Pather Panchali and Aparajito in English, he would have probably been given the Nobel Prize and feted the world over as a literary genius.
These two novels – apart from being the source of world cinema’s most accomplished trilogy – perfectly blurs the difference between children’s literature and general literature. A boy’s journey from a rural childhood to an urban adulthood, his relationships, his changing worldview, his ambitions, his talents are so amazingly etched that every child would have identified with it for some part and empathized with the rest of it.
Chnader Pahad – which is clearly a story meant for children – follows a daredevil Bengali youth (Sankar) from his mundane existence in rural Bengal to a railway surveyor’s job in Africa. For the homebound Bengali, this leap across continents should have been breath-taking enough. But then, Sankar sets his sights on the fabled Chnader Pahad (literally, Mountain of the Moon) and its diamond mines. He sets off for the hidden treasures of the mountain, with a guide called Alvarez who had tried once and failed. On his adventures, he comes across umpteen hardships and encounters life-threatening beasts of the jungle (snakes and lions, among others). One of them was the Bunip, which ultimately wipes out almost his entire group.
Given the constraints of information flow in the times it was written (late 1930s, I think), the research and detailing of the African nations is very impressive. Basically, Chnader Pahad opened up a whole new vista for the Bengali reader, taking adventure to a different orbit altogether. And yes, all of us have dreamt of spending a night on Mount Kilimanjaro under the stars!
I have heard of a book called Hirey Manik Joley, which is a children’s novel by Bibhutibhushan (I think). Anybody read that?

Hemendra Kumar Ray
He had two young detectives – Jayanta and Manik (the latter being the former’s assistant) – accompanied by a police officer by the name of Sundar babu. Sundar-babu’s signature exclamation was “Hummmmm”, usually brought about by complicated clues, mysterious enemies and hunger! To satisfy the last mentioned problem, every adventure was preceded by a drawing-room scene when mouth-watering savouries would be brought in by Jayanta’s servant (I forget his name).
His two most famous novels are Jakher Dhan and Abar Jakher Dhan – both of which were essentially treasure hunts with the help of pretty facile clues. I remember one clue being engraved on a skull (!) and it being a numerical transliteration of the Bengali letters. As in A being replaced by 1, B by 2 and son on. Since Bengali (like most Indian languages) has a lot of compound letters, the clue was not as easy as it would be in English, but pretty easy any way!
By the way, Jakh is derived from the Bengali word Jakkha, which in turn, is derived from Yaksh (I think). But what would be the English for it?

Swapan Kumar
No remembrance of children’s literature in Bengali can be complete without Deepak Chatterjee, created by Swapan Kumar on an unbridled fancy. As pointed out by Dipanjan and Nilendu in the earlier post, Deepak Chatterjee usually carried two revolvers in his two hands and a torch in the other! His private jet, his armoury of sophisticated weapons, his black overcoat and pipe (?), a continuous stream of damsels in distress as his clients, and diamonds the size of ‘pigeon’s eggs’ were all quite fantastic and – despite the obvious hurry in which these were churned out – were very readable.
I think Satyajit Ray modeled Jatayu on similar lines – as an author of adventures with melodramatic names, unbelievable plots, zero research and huge success!
When I read the comments mentioning him after my previous post, I saw a parallel between him and Mithun Chakrabarti. While mainstream Bollywood produced big-budget films with polish and finesse meant for the multiplexes, Mithun and his bevy of B-grade producers had a veritable factory of shoestring budget hits, with guttural emotions, raw dialogues & action with unseen (by us) but very broad-based appeal. Swapan Kumar’s books were exactly the same. Given the number he wrote, his commercial success was undeniable but ‘critical’ acclaim eluded him totally! And of course, like Mithun, Swapan Kumar also seems to have a cult following on the blogosphere!

Okay, I am done… now – you, you and you start off!
And the rest of you are welcome to join in as well.

Updated to add Nilendu's comment, which had accidentally got deleted:
some clarifications -
'chander pahar' was not written on 30s..'raamer sumoti' probably was! bibhutibabu belongs to 50s and 60s along with manikbabu and tarashonkor..
there's a very enjoyable anecdote on how bibhutibhushan never really went outside eastern india, but read his "national geographic" issues very well..
"heerey maanik joley" is about treasure hunting in a remote island. that's the third of 3 children's novels written by BB, along with "chander pahar" and "moroner doNka baaje"..i think all three would be in vol 9 of his collection (originally published by mitra & ghosh)..a must read
swapan kumar's damsels in distress were indeed 'unputdownable', if you know what i mean!..and, i won't exactly brand it "children's lit" -- though "okalpokkos" like us grew up on a steady stream of those volumes..
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