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..


Bapi said...

Good one. Ashapurna Debi should have found a place in this blog

S said...

I am eagerly hunting for that post exclusively on Satyajit Ray.... on your blog :) I am not a bengali...Though read some of the works of Sarath, Bibhutibhushan, Bankim, Tagore etc... and there was one Bengali novel... "kalakattar ke cheyi..." which I read in Telugu..rest all in English... I am sorta curious to know who other Bengali writers are..now... Thanks for arousing that curiosity.. Keep writing... Perhaps..this comment is irrelevant to this post...but.. can't help it.. :)

Dipanjan said...

Another beautiful post. Thanks.

A few random thoughts.

Parashuram: Jatin Sen's illustrations added so much to the stories. One day I will scan some of those from the torn pages of my copies of Gaddolika and Kajjali. Parashuram's scientific temperament and precision of his language stand proudly apart in Bangla humor-lit.

The Desh anthology Subarnajayanti Galpo Sankalan includes a must-read laugh-out-loud brilliance -- Saralakkho Hom where the title character -- a pun on Sherlock Holmes -- and Batuk Sen (Watson) ingeniously solve a puzzling romantic mystery.

Lalima Pal(pung) is the first prototype of modern metrosexual. A couple of weeks ago, an Anandabazar Sunday article on gender identity and construction took the position that kochi sansad reinforced gender stereotypes. I would have to strongly disagree. Parashuram used to be extremely efficient in subtle subversion of gender roles, especially in his very original retakes of classic Indian myths and stories. One day I will write on that.

Shibram: Thanks for the nod.

In one of my favorite Harshabardhan-Gobardhan stories, Gobardhan comes up with a nice ponzi scheme of repaying creditor A by borrowing money from creditor B and then paying off B's loans by borrowing again from A. He kept on doing that for a year until one day both A and B grabbed him at a street-corner. Whenever I read about the credit bubbles and US deficits, I am reminded of that story.

BBB: Nilendu, Dipta is right. chNader pahaaR was written in 1937. Bibhutibabu died in 1950.
And thanks for Maraner Danka Baaje. I spent five minutes in trying to recall that and then I saw your comment. I remember that volume and each of them is exceptional. Not necessarily in the young-adult genre, but Aranyak deserves a nod whenever Bibhutibabu is being discussed. I have recently started to (re)-read everything written by Nirad C. He was a very close friend of Bibhutibabu and, as usual, has some very interesting anecdotes and insights to share.

HKR: Was not a big fan when I first read him -- as was the case with Premendra Mitra's Ghanada -- but appreciated a re-read. He was probably a little ahead of his time. Other than Jayanta-Manik, he had another series with Bimal, Kumar and ManikBabu and I think it's them, not Jayanta-Manik, who star in the Jakher Dhan stories. I can't recall the name of Jayanta's servant either -- his manghsher singaras were divine. I think the name starts with an "N", Nakul? Nepal? Ah, how am I going to sleep tonight?

Sorry for the long and rambling comment. But, hey, you asked for it.

Dipta Chaudhuri said...

@ Dipanjan: Long rambling posts deserve long rambling comments. Thanks.
Yes, you are right. Jakher Dhan starred Bimal-Kumar. Blame it on my extempore writing (that too, offline) without a shred of research!

@ Nilendu: You really must practice saying "I don't know" in front of the mirror 50 times every day.
THINK. Satyajit Ray made Pather Panchali in 1955, the rights of which he bought from BBB's widow.

@ All: One nos completely unwieldy Ray post coming up today/tomorrow (before HP 7 hits!)

nilendu said...

As corrected (I just checked the Rochonaboli -), "Chander Pahar" started in "Mouchak" from "Ashar, 1342 (Bengali Calendar). BB died by 1950. Pathetic mistake. I never speak about English literature, being completely ignorant about it. This is the last time I spoke on Bengali too. Bad, truly bad goof up.

Anirban & Sujata said...


I don't think Dipta ever read "Prothom Protisruti" or for that matter "Subarnalota" or "Bokulkotha", did you Dipta :-) But if you haven't read Leela Majumdar's "Pakdondi" (and knowing that you are a sucker for nostalgia), you might like to give it a shot.

BTW, If I recall correctly (and I might not, quite likely !), Bimal and Kumar's man servant was Ramhari. Bimal-Kumar was more of an adventure-loving duo and Jayanta-manik being the detective juTi. HKR had another detective in a few of his books, most of them were part of the series from Deb Sahitya Kutir that used to cost 4 rs. each. I think his name was Hemanta. The fact that I cannot remember his name with absolute confidence is a sure pointer that I have Alzheimer's. Mamu might be able to clarify this one. More later ...

Beside_Yourself said...

most probably you do not appreciate comments from someone unknown and outside the group, most probably you do not appreciate comments from someone unknown and outside the group, still making one (or two) since I cannot help it.

I hated Mahapurush. I think THE MASTER did a huge goof up here. Birinchibaba-r moto omon golpo ke oirokom roshkoshhheen bhabe prakash kora ta satyi difficult - but he managed to do that anyway !!! Which is even more surprising considering his awesome sense of humour (remembering Baksha Bodol here, which is the film I go back to any time I need cheering up). The only good thing in the film was the twirling of thumbs in opposite directions - apparently whole of calcutta was hooked onto that- you could see people everywhere trying to do the same !!

and just to end Shibram's story(mentioned by Dipanjan)-jokhon A & B Gobordhan ke ghire dhorlo, Gobordhan ek gaal heshe bollo, thik eitaai aami chaichhilam. Aj theke maasher prothome A-babu aapni B-babu ke 50 taakaa deben - aar porer maasher prothome B-babu aapni A-babu ke 50 taakaa pherot deben, porer maasher prothome aabaar A-babu aapni B-babu ke 50 taakaa deben - and so on ----- etaa aapnaader-e byaapaar, ami aar er modhye thaaki keno !!

Dipta Chaudhuri said...

@ Bnaru: :-p

@ Be Yo: Comments are most welcome. And most are outside the 'group' anyway. For example, I have never met Dipanjan in my life!
And Mahapurush - film and book - deserves a separate post. Will do it.

Chinmoy said...

where can i get "abar jakher dhan" tv serial full video?