Readers who venture into the hypnotic universe of Amar Mitra’s novel, Dhanapatir Char, must brace themselves for surprises. Not so much by way of twists and turns in the plot as by the author’s relentless demands on them. To read Mitra’s epic well, we must shift our mindset first—not just willingly suspend our disbelief but rather be willing to believe in the mystical, to surrender to the inexorable power of stories. As the eponymous Dhanapati, the ancient, self-proclaimed overlord of an island on the Bay of Bengal, tells his teenage “wife” Kunti, “You cannot listen to this story if you try to fathom it with a calendar and a watch. The story of the island is timeless, with a million possibilities.”
Although written in the realist mode, Mitra’s novel is audacious in its treatment of plot and character. Myth meets modernity in its pages to create an air of heady uncertainty, as if the words are laced with intoxicants. Old Dhanapati, for instance, is believed to be centuries old. At times he claims he’s descended from the Portuguese pirate Pedru; at other times, he says he is Pedru himself. And then, there are moments when he insists that he’s a giant tortoise who holds his island on its back and wants to swim away with it one day to Lisbon.
This enormous reptile, a creature who has been venerated in folklore across the world since prehistoric times, is believed to surface over the ocean for six months every year. During this time, fishermen from the mainland come to the island to make a living, accompanied by a group of vagrant women, who act as their “wives” for half a year. While on the island, the fisherfolk pay homage to Dhanapati, sharing their earnings with him as taxes, who, in turn, pays off the “government”. As it becomes clear early on, “government” is a catch-all term that refers to the police, bureaucracy, and big businesses—people or institutions that wield their authority over the wretched fisherfolk and women.
At the end of their stay, the fishermen dismantle their make-believe worlds, burn their cottages on Pedru’s Island, and sail back to their real families on the mainland, forgetting the women who had loyally looked after their needs for six months. The women, too, return to their old ways, begging on the streets or scraping together a living by selling their bodies. To the “government” on the mainland, this arrangement smacks of prostitution; for the men and women involved, it is par for the course, a faux matrimony forged out of exigency and blessed by the elements. With the humans gone, the island begins to sink under the waters, the tides become unruly, and the tortoise swims away into the deep. The laws of nature run this transient cycle of arrival and departure like clockwork.
One year, a human trafficker and land shark called Dasharath Singh comes in pursuit of one of the fisherwomen, Batashi. His greed and lust, combined with Batashi’s fierce resistance, bring in unwanted changes to Pedru’s Island. Dhanapati decides to hand over his empire to his temporary “wife” Kunti, a chit of a girl with the courage of a lion, whose makes it her mission to release the floating women population from the indignity of their half-year lives, and give them instead the permission to build a “twelve-month life” on the island. Her plan requires the approvals of the “governments”—starting from Mangal Midde, a constable, to Malakar, a government clerk, and finally, Aniket Sen, the BDO. While the first two continue to extort money and other favours from the islanders, Aniket Sen becomes embroiled with the magical aura of Dhanapati’s stories and Kunti’s sex appeal.
The late Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey’s translation beautifully captures this crisis. If the air on the island is thick with suspense, it is also pierced with a myriad songs and lore, circulated by women with vivid imaginations. As a quintessentially modern tragedy unfolds, ignoring the rules of a mythical past, a primal conflict rears up its head. A tug of war between Kunti and the “government” ensues over Batashi, with the fisherfolk wavering in their support of the two parties.
The vaulting ambition of Mitra’s novel lies in its spirited depiction of this clash of wills. A plot line that is thin enough to carry through a tightly written short story is turned into a scaffold for a mammoth novel, with scores of Old Wives’ Tales branching out like distributaries of a mighty river. The inventiveness of folksy wisdom—manifested, for instance, in the secular spin-off that the island was a joint gift of the Hindu goddess Ma Kamala and Mother Mary to Pedru—is juxtaposed against primal fears of destruction and ill omens. Batashi’s troubles are discussed ad nauseam, every dire consequence is dissected. And yet, these repetitions, instead of jarring on the ear or slowing down the pace, act like incantatory spells. The deeper the reader gets into this magical world, the more firmly their sympathies take root on the soil of Dhanapati’s Island.
For the poor fisherfolk and their “government” Dhanapati, the collective reminiscence of a glorious past is a form of defense against the incursion of the state. While Dasharath goes around bribing the authorities in his quest to occupy Pedru’s Island, old Dhanapati and his tribe spin fantastical tales of ownership and inheritance to assert their claims. In the end, the tussle is between the “governments”—the trader, the police, and the bureaucracy—and Dhanapati and Kunti. The former want to beautify the island and build a luxury resort, while the latter are desperate to preserve its rugged and rustic charm. It’s a familiar, 21st-century problem in a world overtaken by flagrant industrialization and climate change, with little or no regard for the supernatural forces that have nurtured our natural havens.
From Manik Bandopadhyay’s novel Padmanadir Majhi (the fishermen of the Padma River) to Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide and Gun Island, there is a distinguished line of novels that capture the changing fortunes of Bengal’s deltaic region. Mitra belongs to this august tradition of storytellers, too, and it is to Mukherjee Pandey we must be grateful for giving his work the wider reach it deserves.
Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.