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Remembering the evergreen genius of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay

  • On the eve of the 125th birth anniversary of the great Bengali writer, Lounge revisits his legacy
  • Bandyopadhyay’s interest in the natural world is urgently relevant to the environmental crises of our time

An undated portrait of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay from his family’s collection.
An undated portrait of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay from his family’s collection.

Beyond the Bengali-speaking world, the name of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay is inescapably associated with Satyajit Ray’s movie adaptation of his classic novel, Pather Panchali (published in 1929, released as a movie in 1955). But to readers of Bengali, Bandyopadhyay remains an icon, perhaps not as widely read and remembered as Rabindranath Tagore, but still admired by a cult-like following. Yet, on the eve of his 125th birth anniversary next week, Bandyopadhyay’s books seem urgently relevant to our time. They demand to be read, discussed, translated and celebrated, more than ever before.

Born on 12 September 1894 in a village in Bengal’s Nadia district, Bandyopadhyay had a hard life. Although he was a bright student, he was forced to interrupt his postgraduate studies to earn a living. He took on several odd jobs, from teaching in schools to managing estates, to support his family, while keeping up his writing. By the time he died in 1950, Bandyopadhyay had left behind a rich legacy, in spite of the relatively brief 56 years he lived. More than a dozen works of fiction, hundreds of short stories, a handful of memoirs and essays: His output was diverse, eclectic, prolific.

Although he lived and wrote in a literary golden age in Bengal, Bandyopadhyay crafted a distinctive style, cultivating a voice that suited his sensibility and the subjects close to his heart. His novels did not necessarily dwell on the psychological depth Tagore had brought to the genre. Nor did he follow the earthy realism, tinged with melodrama, which had become the staple of the best-selling novels of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay. And although he was a modernist writer in a historical sense, Bandyopadhyay remained fairly traditional in his execution of language and plot, compared to some of his more daring contemporaries like Manik Bandopadhyay, whose experimental novels were unique for Bengali readers of the 1930s and 1940s.

Yet, Bandyopadhyay was—and remains —one of the most original voices in Bengali literature. Although writers before him—Tagore, most notably, in Chhinapatrabali (translated into English as Letters From A Young Poet by Rosinka Chaudhuri in 2014)—had written about the hinterland of Bengal, Bandyopadhyay captured the magic of the rural landscape like no one else had done before him, or since. In a sense, he was a kindred spirit of the Romantic poets of England in the 18th century, whose verses rang out with a call to return to nature—in literature, in the fine arts, in life—rejecting the trappings of mindless industrialization and capitalist greed.

Having lived through two world wars and witnessed the destruction wrought by avarice and lust for power, Bandyopadhyay also turned his gaze on the pristine, if poverty-stricken, heart of rural Bengal. He did write with empathy and insight about the challenges of urban life as well, especially during the war and in its aftermath in novels like Anubartan, which was set among a community of teachers in a school in war-ridden Calcutta (now Kolkata). But it was his close attention to the realities of rural life—the challenges that pushed desperate men to choose the hostility of the big city over the hard but sedate life of the village—that gave his writing its unique flavour.

Pather Panchali, as those who have seen Ray’s (albeit somewhat free) adaptation would know, chronicles an inter-generational tale of a family living in a hamlet in Bengal. Bandyopadhyay captured the slow passage of life in a village, and its effect on his characters, in an idiom that could never be fully transposed on to film.

A page from one of his notebooks.
A page from one of his notebooks.

In several of his other novels too, he returned to the rural setting—to examine caste dynamics, for instance, in Ichamati, a novel named after a river. In Asani Sanket (which was, once again, adapted by Ray in 1973), he described the gradual decline of a rural economy reeling from the pressure of World War II and the famine of 1943 that had ravaged the Bengal countryside. Written towards the end of colonial rule and the first years of independent India, these novels bear testimony to the churn that was rending apart the fabric of rural society—a fear and premonition M.K. Gandhi had also felt.

Hard-hitting as these novels were, it was his gift as a travel writer, along with his abiding interest in natural history, which set apart Bandyopadhyay from his contemporaries. To this day, these qualities make him a unique figure in the pantheon of literary eminences of Bengal. His novel Aranyak (literally, of the forest) is, for instance, a quintessentially modern work that surveys the incursion of the long arm of capitalism into the wild, forested terrain of Bihar. Satyacharan, the protagonist of the story, is forced by unemployment in Calcutta to take up the job of an estate manager in the neighbouring state. But he is singularly unsuited to his role, smitten as he is by the natural beauty of the landscape over which he must impose the ruthless claims of the landowners, his employers. Read together with some of Bandyopadhyay’s non-fictional essays, such as HeyAranya Katha Kao (The Forest Speaks), Aranyak seems to hold up a mirror to our times, when the destruction of the environment is being unthinkingly normalized for the sake of economic progress.

Immersed as he was in nature all his life, Bandyopadhyay did not reject society by way of American transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau. Rather, he remained keenly alert to the shifting sands of the human mind as well as open to curiosity. Although he did not travel beyond the limited radius of eastern India all his life, Bandyopadhyay was a true cosmopolitan, bridging vast distances in his imagination through his reading and research.

Chander Pahar (The Moon Mountain), among his most beloved novels, was written for young readers, although adults are just as susceptible to its charm. Its hero, Shankar Roy Choudhury, is a young Bengali man forced into a clerical job by family exigencies. Athletic and brimming with a zest for adventure, Shankar, however, longs to be an explorer like David Livingstone and Marco Polo. When, by a stroke of luck, he gets an offer to work with Uganda Railway, Shankar takes up the job in a heartbeat. He sets off on the adventure of a lifetime, one that involves strange tribes, man-eating lions and the mythical creature bunyip, among other curiosities.

Decades after it was written, and in spite of all its fantastical fabrications, Chander Pahar still ranks among the best adventure stories in the world. Hopefully, its creator will now, at long last, get the dues. More translations of his books into English and a detailed biography would be a good place to start.

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