As a young man with ambitions of becoming a writer, I was often driven to distraction by the fact that people my age were already writing and publishing books while in their 20s. Where do they get the time, I wondered, or is it that I have no talent? At times like that, I would remind myself that one of Bengali fiction’s greatest writers, Satyajit Ray, didn’t put pen to paper until the age of 40. If he could begin that late, and then go on to write hundreds of gripping short stories and novels, then there was hope for me.
Apart from a couple of stray early pieces, Ray really only began writing fiction in 1961. That year, he had helped revive a famous old children’s magazine, Sandesh, that had been started by his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, and had run from 1913-1925 and again from 1929-34. Ray and his co-editors had to find enough material to fill the monthly magazine, so Ray began contributing stories.
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His first short story—quite fittingly, given his love for H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke—was the delightful science fiction story, Bonku Babu'r Bondhu (Bonku Babu's Friend). In 1965 he wrote a science fiction adventure story for Sandesh called Byomjatri’r Diary (The Diary Of A Space Traveller). In it, we are introduced to one of Ray’s most memorable creations, the eccentric middle-aged Prof. Trilokeshwar Shonku, scientist extraordinaire. Shonku lives in Giridih (in present-day Jharkhand) with his manservant Prahlad and his cat Newton and creates a spaceship that takes them to Mars. Although this early story was mostly farcical in tone and the narrative was played for laughs, over the next two decades and across 37 more stories, Prof. Shonku and his intrepid adventures would take on an increasingly sophisticated and sometimes haunting tone.
And what stories they are! In Professor Shonku Ar Baghdad’er Baksho (Professor Shonku And The Box From Baghdad), Shonku stumbles across a 4,000-year-old film from ancient Sumeria. In Ekasringa Abhijan (The Unicorn Expedition), he leads an international expedition to Tibet to verify reports of unicorn sightings. In Maru Rahasya (The Mystery In The Desert), Shonku goes looking for a missing scientist and finds his 6,000ft-corpse in the Sahara! In Mahakash’er Doot (The Messenger From The Stars), an intelligent spaceship belonging to a benign, advanced civilisation that has gone extinct brings a miniaturised file containing 65,000 years of human history and suggestions for a sustainable future. In Nakurbabu O El Dorado (Nakurbabu And El Dorado), an unassuming man develops superhuman powers of telepathy, clairvoyance, second sight and hypnotism and uses them to defeat a rapacious American billionaire. Ray's brilliant illustrations helped bring these stories to life.
Ray’s Shonku stories are extremely tightly-plotted adventure yarns, where Shonku takes on one sticky situation after another, armed with his Annihilin pistol (which can obliterate any living thing), his Miracureall pill (which cures everything other than the common cold) and a plethora of other inventions. However, the stories also function as perfectly concise little narratives of transporting wonder. Like Ray’s other fiction, the Shonku stories were written for teenagers and young adults, and, through them, generations of Bengali children developed a keen appreciation for the wider world, of other cultures, of the mysteries of the universe.
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The stories convince the reader that there is no end to human possibilities, but also that self-confidence should never careen over into hubris. To appreciate these qualities, one just has to look at Shonku’s own lightly-worn exceptionalism. Among his many achievements, Shonku holds the patents for the most inventions by any scientist; he has created an intelligent robot in under ₹400; he has deciphered the Indus Valley script. What makes Shonku an icon, though, is his clear moral compass and his open mind, free of superstition. His intellectual prowess is married to a homely ingenuity: He is incorruptible, he always stands up for the disenfranchised, he is proud of his achievements but never feels any sense of superiority.
It is often mentioned by Ray analysts that the dry and aloof intellectualism of his most famous literary creation—the tall, dapper, unflappable detective Feluda—was autobiographical in nature. While that is true to a certain extent, I would argue that the diminutive, bald, long-bearded Prof. Shonku too is modelled on him. Shonku is as world-famous a scientist as Ray was as film-maker (and as ignored nationally as he is feted abroad); Shonku’s urbane milieu of international scientific peers brings to mind Ray’s own friendships with directors such as Akira Kurosawa; and Shonku’s distrust of American capitalists is on a par with Ray’s bemusement and disgust with Hollywood.
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I can’t help but think that in the right hands, Ray’s Prof. Shonku stories would make for an excellent TV series. The stories also deserve good translations. It would be a shame if present and future generations of children were deprived of that thrilling sense of awe, wonder and possibility that lit up my childhood.