Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Books I Grew Up On... Part One

This post is in partial response to Spaniard's Nostalgia Challenge, to find out whether we would still enjoy books we read as children (yes, I would!) and partially to fulfill Rimi's request to exchange notes on books we liked (I don't think so, considering I am probably a generation older!).

I very firmly believe that the quality of literature (for both children as well as general) in Bengali is of a very high order but ranking it ahead of other languages of India is fraught with the danger of being labeled parochial. As if that deterred me anyway!
However anecdotally, I have noticed one thing, which is exclusive to Bengalis. This is the exposure, enjoyment and memory of literature in Bengali. I have friends from all over the country – who come from a similar background as mine and speak their respective mother tongues quite fluently. But their exposure of literature is restricted to English. They are extremely well read, but not in their mother tongues.
Most of them learnt their mother tongue naturally and as a chore at schools. So did I – and hated every moment of taking Bengali exams but ended up reading a whole lot of greatly enjoyable literature.
My hypothesis is that on an average, the Bong is more familiar with his literature than any other linguistic group in India. There, I said it… now kill me!

The names I have gone back to in this post are the ones who wrote actively during my childhood, usually in a serialized form for the children’s magazine – Anandamela. Their stories for the annual Puja issue (Pujabarshiki) of the same magazine would also be eagerly awaited and involved a whole lot of negotiation as to when the issue would be purchased and who would get to read it first!

Apart from this list, there are several stalwarts whose works I read voraciously, admire greatly and keep going back to. I have excluded them from this piece more from a classification point of view as they were before my times. Maybe I will get back to them on a later day.
Also, everything in here is written from memory. So, errata and addenda to the post are actively solicited.

Buddhadeb Guha
Buddhadeb Guha’s passion as a nature lover comes across his entire body of work. A large number of his novels are set in the forests of Assam, North Bengal and the Santhal Paraganas.
The hero of his children’s stories is a nature lover – Riju-da. A pipe-smoking, Stetson-wearing gentleman whose adventures have taken him from India to Africa. His facility with guns was made obvious in the narrative though he preferred to use them against poachers and smugglers.

Moti Nandi
His specialty was sports literature, which is bit of rarity in the output of Indian authors in general. Moti Nandi’s annual novel in the Puja issue would either be an episode from the life of his heroine, Kalabati or about an unlikely sporting hero.
Kalabati was quite a unique character. She was a woman cricketer, having played club cricket and who became a sports journalist. The novels were quite pleasing – with a strong vein of sarcasm while discussing the politics, chauvinism, nepotism and – most importantly – the hopes of Maidan cricket of Calcutta.
Of his earlier novels, I remember Koni– about a teenaged girl who excels in national level swimming with the help of her coach. This novel was later made into a reasonably successful film with Soumitra Chatterjee playing the role of the coach and a real-life swimmer in the title role.
Of the two I remember quite vividly, one is Naran – chronicling the life of a village boy who is fan of Emil Zatopek. He reads about Emil and Dana’s pioneering Olympic records and starts practicing long-distance running. His passion – in the middle of life’s struggles – was quite vividly recounted as his obvious talent got wasted in the maze of India’s pitiful sports infra.
The other one is Jiban Ananta – which was the story of two friends growing up playing cricketer. The more talented one – Jiban – was a batsman and loses his arm in a motor accident due to the negligence of the other – Ananta. This loss inspires Ananta to take his talent – fast bowling – seriously and he eventually makes it to the national side but not before a very realistic depiction of Board machinations, regional selection politics, players’ ego hassles and contract rows.

Saradindu Bandopadhyay
Strictly speaking, Saradindu does not qualify for the ‘contemporary’ authors’ slot as his writing days preceded my reading days by a lot. However, by the criterion of authors whose works I eagerly waited for, he walks in because one of his series of novellas was being serialized in the comic-book format when I started reading.
The series, itself, was a great example of historical fiction (which was Saradindu’s forte, to begin with) set in the times of Shivaji’s rule. It traced the journey of a teenager called Sadashiv, who ran away from his village and accidentally bumped into the army of Shivaji, who was on the run from the Mughal armies. Sadashiv endeared himself to the Maratha king with his intelligence and sincerity – and his adventures were beautifully woven into his king’s military sorties.
The intricate details of life at that time as well as the depth of research on Shivaji were probably a by-product of Saradindu’s extended stay in Bombay as a screenwriter.
Of all these authors, it is Saradindu’s Byomkesh Bakshi who is best known outside Bengal, thanks to the eponymous TV series.

Sanjib Chattopadhyay
Sanjib Chattopadhyay’s forte was humour. For a very long time, his one-page humour column in Desh was most eagerly awaited. His children’s stories had lots of it as well.
His most well known series is that of Boromama-Mejomama – narrated by a boy living in a joint family of his two uncles (the aforementioned mamas), aunt and a motley crew of retainers. The uncles were both bachelors and had opposite temperaments. One a doctor and the other a professor, they collided often enough to provide a whole lot of funny incidents, observed silently by the boy and occasionally mediated by the aunt.
Later on, Sanjib Chattopadhyay came up with two ‘serious’ novels in successive years – Iti Palash and Iti Tomar Ma. The names signified the typical way a letter is ended in Bengali, iti meaning ‘this much’. (Ray’s Pratidwandi also ended with a letter from the protagonist Siddhartha and the last frame froze with the words ‘Iti Siddhartha’.)
Iti Palash was about a boy inflicted with polio, his talent for painting and his relationship with family & friends (especially a girl of his age) and his eventual migration abroad on a scholarship.
Iti Tomar Ma was about a family of three – where the boy gets constantly bullied by some spoilt brats of his locality and is inspired by his parents to learn martial arts and give it back to them. Though heavy on melodrama, the novel is extremely well written and loaded with details of middle class life in Calcutta. I remember, the eventual tragic end (as hinted in the title) haunted me for quite some time!

Shirshendu Mukhopdhyay
Shirshendu is one of the few authors in Bengali – who did not have a recurring hero. His heroes changed from story to story and he had a strong penchant for the underdog.
In several novels, there would be a dominating elderly character, who would have missed international glory (Olympic medal, foreign education) due to a quirk of fate. One specific character I remember could not join the Indian boxing team as he developed a carbuncle on his back at the last moment!
His stories were set in suburban Calcutta or rural West Bengal – and involved a hidden treasure being targeted by a slick outsider. His plans were foiled by a teenaged hero, usually accompanied by a young uncle. The apparently placid plots were peppered with witty dialogues, clever episodes of one-upmanship and several sub-plots making them eminently readable.
I remember Gourer Kabach - a story about a village boy who chances upon a medallion with supernatural powers and becomes a hero in saving his village.

Sunil Gangopadhyay
Sunil Gangopdhyay’s character – Raja Roychowdhury – had a physical disability. On one of his earlier expeditions, he lost one of his legs in an accident and used crutches. A typical Bengali bhadralok, he was a bachelor and fiercely independent. He refused all help offered due to his disability. His sidekick was his teenaged nephew (Shontu) who called him by his more popular moniker – Kakababu (Uncle).
Shontu was a regular boy-next-door or so I thought, till he stood fifth in Higher Secondary (Class XII Exams of the WB Board)! He was almost a carbon copy of Topshe though he knows karate and is more prone to fisticuffs.
In the later novels, a young girl of his age was also introduced, though not suggesting romance in any form. One of Shontu’s friends – Jojo – also started making regular appearances in the later stories as a teller of tall tales (“Kapil Dev calls on my father before every Test…”) and generally be the court jester in a rather lame attempt to copy Satyajit Ray’s famous trio. The attempt was not required as the duo of Kakababu and Shontu was quite interesting to begin with.
Kakababu was probably an archaeologist and most of their adventures centered on retrieval of an ancient artifact, usually priceless. The adversary would be an unscrupulous dealer of art, who thinks nothing of selling off the country’s treasures to the highest bidder.
One recurring twist in every tale would be that the object would get irretrievably lost. Somehow, I felt that Sunil was scared about someone asking him where the objects were if Kakababu had rescued them!
The objects were quite esoteric and unquestionably valuable – the original headless statue of Kanishka (Bhoyonkor Shundor), a copy of the Gutenberg Bible (Kakababu Heyrey Gelen) or a rare Egyptian papyrus (Mishor Rohoshyo).

Syed Mustafa Siraj
A retired Colonel – Niladri Sarkar – was the eccentric sleuth in Syed Mustafa Siraj’s stories, narrated by a lazy journalist (Jayanta) who accompanied him on his missions. The colonel was a butterfly collector, smoked pipes and had a Santa beard. He was also jovial and liked quoting Bengali proverbs & nursery rhymes.
I returned to three of his adventures in an English translation (bought by my wife) and was pleasantly surprised that the novels remain eminently readable despite being obviously outdated and the quality of detective work being quite childish! What scored in this author’s works (along with all of the others) is the expert build-up of atmosphere and character.

None of these authors started their careers writing for children. Their reputation was built on writing novels & poems for adults. Towards the later part of their career, they started writing for children given the huge demand for that genre in Bengali.
Apart from Anandamela (from the ABP group), there are several other children’s magazines that come out. All these publishing houses and their demands probably forced these authors to write for children regularly, create characters in a believable atmosphere and let them expand from year to year.
Their natural talent for literature ensured that the characters were believable, the plot grabbed attention and deadlines were met! Their honesty towards their craft ensured that they put in research and give correct information in stories meant for young people, thus making the stories authentic and believable.

Satyajit Ray created Feluda for a magazine run by his family (Sandesh) and then had to make it an annual feature, churning them out despite his hectic film-making schedule. Their popularity, even in Bengal, is more than that of his award winning films and Ray had accepted that his household runs on his earnings from writing.
Every Bengali child starts off on Feluda, becomes a fan and is very surprised one day when he gets to know that the guy who writes Feluda has also directed some films.
I will end here… the three Rays (Upendrakishore, Sukumar and Satyajit) need a post of their own!

Updated to add Nilendu's comments, which had got deleted:
No woman in the list?? Leela Majumder, Ashapurna Debi (teenage detective duo - tyaNpa and someone else), Meera Balsubramanium, Nabanita Debsen? Did not you read "Pandob Goenda" (a la 'famous five') by Sasthipodo Chattopadhaya? Kana Panchu is surely the most popular pet in bong children's lit. Or the timeless epics of Shailen Ghosh ("khude jajabor istasi" ityadi)?
Dinesh Chattopadhyay's "Duronto Eagle" -- written in the backdrop of Russian revolution, centered on a tribal hero of Russian alps called 'Jura' -- was probably the first book that I had to finish in one go.
Sankarshan Roy used to write odd but captivating stories on geology.
Late 80s, couple of sci-fi writers entered the arena. Siddhartha Ghosh is the one I remember a couple of stories from. Anish Deb - a math professor from Presidency college - also wrote sci-fi.
Talking of Dadas - Premendra Mitra's "Ghanada", Narayan Gangopadhyay's "Tenida" and (forgot the exact name of the author) "Pindida" comes to mind apart from the ones you mentioned. Pindida apparently used to play soccer in Brazil, but dislocated his knee after an illegal tackle by some team mate of Pele.
Apart from "Anandamela", people from my group also subscribed to "Chandmama" (up to the age of 6), "Kishore Bharoti" (age between 12 and 18), "Suktara" (8-14) and "Kishore Gyan Bigyan" (for the ultimate nerds who wanted to generate electricity from Tulsi leaves). I also remember subscribing to an extremely entertaining but very short-lived "Children's Detectives" (it was in Bengali though). Even before that, "Deb Sahitya Kutir" - the other powerful house than Ananda - used to publish one special puja volume just for kids. That would be named like "Sonar Kathi" or "Arun Alo" - and contain writings of pretty much all famed authors on a hardbound, printed on all glossy papers, edition. Luckily, I own a lot of these myself and till date have treasured them even more than my porn collection!
About detectives, another eccentric one is "Kikira" - Kiran Kinkar Roy (or Kishore?) -- basically a retired magician who solved some non-violent, everyday crime with the help of Tarapodo (a clerk) and Chandan (a medical student). "Kapaliker Kobole" was the first book in this series that was published in "Anandamela" (small sized ones those days) along with "Sobuj Dweeper Raja" (on Raja Roychowdhury, aka Kakababu; by Sunil) and the comic strips of "Tintin" (in Bengali, with Captain Haddock's immensely enjoyable but kid-safe Bengali swearing), "Rovers er Roy" and "Gablu" (Henry in English).
Bengali children's comics were the first one in India to actually conceptualize a series on till date popular "Bantul the Great", "HaNda-BhoNda" and "Nonte-PhoNte" -- surprisingly -- all by the same author - Narayan Debnath. Another great comic artiste was Mayukh Chowdhury with his angular, black ink sketches of characters from Hemen Roy's "Jokher Dhon" etc.
Bengali children's literature deserves a thick volume of encyclopedia, but even a short narrative like this one would not be complete without mentioning Bhibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's (same author who wrote "Pather Panchali") child trilogy that started with possibly the best ever children's novel ever written anywhere - "ChaNder Pahar". Every boy who has been born after this novel was written and who can read Bengali always dreams to become "Shankar" and spend a moonlit night near a tent in Kilimanjaro.

Yup yup yup!!! I did subscribe to "Kishore Mon" as well. Damn. That was a bad bad mistake to omit it out. Was a pretty good mag!
We forgot one more popular author here. Samaresh Majumder. And I must say, I have not yet read a more romantic take on the "young adult" infatuation and puppy love than Majumder's "Der Din" (one and half days). In the said story, Arjun (the detective from Jalpaigudi, not from Calcutta!) -- escorts 3 or 4 sophomores from Delhi in Terai forest. The description of the night out of Arjun and the lead girl of that group on top of a viewing tower in the forest is simply Uttam-Suchitra caliber stuff. Arjun has what we called "alur dosh" in college, whereas other detectives and their cohorts (other than Santu) pretty much look down when they see a lady. This was most apparent in Satyajit Ray's Feluda series. Leela Majumder, in her forward to the "Feluda Somogro" even complained about the fact that Feluda, Topse, Sidhujyatha, Lalmohanbabu as well as most of their villains are either single or lost their wives long before the story started! I have found ONLY one line in Feluda books that describes female looks -- in one of the later ones -- "Mrs Sen ke dekhle bojha jaaY je uNader poribarer sobai besh bhalo dekhte!"
There's also a flair for romance in Moti Nandy's "Kalabati" series between "Sotu" (Kalabati's uncle) and "didimoni" (Kalabati's headmistress).
Since we were discussing authors from our generations mostly, I did also not mention Shibram Chakraborty (and Shailo too, if you may, for the drawings). Harshabordhon and Govardhan or Detective "Kolke Kashi" were howlarious!
I used to be a big fan of Sapan Kumar's "Detective Deepak Chatterjee" series - 50-75 page paperbacks - that you could buy at wheeler book stalls in Railway stations. That requires a post of its own because of the uncanny descriptions like "dure geerzar ghorite dhon dhong koriya ekta bajilo" or "Dassu Mohan" series influenced "kotha hoite ki hoiya gelo, Deepak ghorer modhey ekta atom boma nikkhep koriya blake snake er koral bodon aral koriya ber hoiya asilo".

Damn! I forgot one thing. "Jibon Ananto" - the novel you mentioned from Moti Nondi - ends with Ananto taking 6 wickets in - wait -- 6 balls. I had tears in my eyes and shivers in my belly as I was reading the description of the over. That afternoon in October 1988, I tried to bowl a little faster and gave 8 wide balls before pitching one in good length!
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