Despite being in centre of Bong civilisation in last year's Pujo as well, I did not get around to buying my quota of the Pujo annual issues. (BTW, the centre of Bong civilisation is C R Park. Bengali civilisation is centred around Maddox Square.
This year, however, I have bought and been gifted a set of three Pujo annuals - Anandamela, Anandalok and Desh. But thanks to my hectic travelling and flight missing in all parts of the country, I have only managed to finish Anandamela and read a few pieces from Anandalok.
The reason for reading Anandamela first was simple - it is the first ever magazine I started reading and that habit is a little difficult to kick! Also, the famous novelists in Bengali are always in great touch when they are writing for children.
Sunil Gangopadhyay has contributed Kakababu-r Chokhey Jol (Kakababu Weeps) and it is a huge disappointment. His famous character, Kakababu, 'solves' the problem without any assistance from his teenage nephew-cum-assistant, Shontu.
Kakababu is a disabled archaeologist, who always solved problems with his brain and overpowered villains with 'moner jor' (mental strength). High quality of detection was never his forte but the settings and the ensemble characters (including the villains) were interesting and the stories eminently readable.
This time around, Kakababu appears as the Incredible Metrosexual Hulk. He weeps ('fnupiye fnupiye knadlen'), he fights swordsmen with his crutch and he burns himself in fire (literally) - all to save a precocious kid, who is so berey paka (smart alec) that he probably deserved to remain kidnapped anyway!
Also over the years, Sunil had introduced a plethora of walk-on characters in his various stories - almost all of whom have stayed back. So you have a large number of characters hanging around and not doing what they are expected to do.
Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay - the other stalwart - comes in with Aghorganj-er Ghoralo Byapar (The Mysterious Affair at Aghorganj) and is in fine form.
Shirshendu is the only children's author I can think of, who does not have a fixed hero. Like always, his story is set in rural Bengal and involves astrologers (Jateshwar Ghoshal), doctors (Karalicharan), ghost-catchers (Bagalapati Pretosiddha), local goons (Batu Parihar and Gopal Guchhait) and general hangers-on (Bipod Bhonjon and Shanka Haran). And, as per tradition, all the characters have quirks funnier than their names.
The astrologer's 100% inaccuracy rate makes him a highly respected man. The cantankerous doctor is not beyond curing patients by hitting them with Gray's Anatomy. There are ghosts who do not believe in ghosts. And there are aliens, who are chased by watch collectors! All in all, vintage Shirshendu!
A recent comment on my post on Bengali children's literature mentioned that there were very few girl characters in the novels we grew up on. This is very correct, considering Mr Ray himself was guilty of banishing females from all his novels.
I can only think of two Feludas, where females had a 'speaking part'. One was Ambar Sen Antardhan Rahashya (The Mysterious Disappearance of Ambar Sen) - where a smart little girl accused Topshe of lying - and that was merely a device for explaining a discrepancy between the early Feluda stories and the later ones. The second was Shakuntala-r Kanthahaar (Shakuntala's Necklace), which had an intelligent, young lady called Mary Sheila Biswas. She actually assisted Feluda in his detection (though the novel was probably the weakest Feluda) and there was a hint of romance (or maybe, I was imagining things) as she came to meet Feluda when Topshe and Jatayu were away.
Samaresh Majumdar and Sunil Gangopadhyay did introduce a few female characters - but they hardly did anything of significance. They remained on the sidelines, said a few 'girly' things and even the romantic angle was not explored.
This year, two of the novels had a central female character - the detective's assistant. Of course, I have come in a little late because both these characters seem to be around for some time.
Suchitra Bhattacharya (another accomplished author) has done a double whammy - her detective is also a lady (Mitin-mashi) whose niece (Tupur) is her assistant. She is married to a regular corporate executive and has a son (Boomboom - what kind of name is that?) but is a private detective.
The adventure - Chhokta Sudoku-r (The Sudoku Grid) - is set in Singapore as Mitin-mashi's husband wins a trip to Singapore in a Sudoku competition and a mystery erupts. While I found the plot a little too ambitious for the scope of the novel, the likeability of the characters and the research was spot on. Mitin-mashi is a techno-savvy, urbane woman - who thinks nothing of using Handycams to track quarries and chomping stir fried squid at road side joints. Nice.
The other novel - Hneyali-r Andhakarey (The Darkness of the Riddle) - is by Sukanto Gangopadhyay. It has a male detective - Dipankar - who solves maths puzzles in his spare time. His assistant is Jhinuk, a college going girl who knows a fair bit of karate and thinks nothing of diving full length to catch criminals escaping on motor-cycles. In the novel - about a family's lucky mascot being stolen - it is the detective who gets kidnapped and the assistant arrives in the nick of time to save him!
In a very interesting twist, Jhinuk gets jealous of a boy, who is a maths genius playing games with the detective. "He wears spectacles. Will he able to fight goons like the way I do?", she wonders as the boy solves a puzzle.
The day of the demure girl on the sidelines of adventure novels is over!