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Tall tales from Bengal

A new anthology of pulp fiction shines a light on a less-known corner of Bengali literature

The Moving Shadow: Electrifying Bengali Pulp Fiction Selected & Translated by Arunava Sinha, Aleph Book Company,  248 pages; ₹499.
The Moving Shadow: Electrifying Bengali Pulp Fiction Selected & Translated by Arunava Sinha, Aleph Book Company, 248 pages; ₹499.

So synonymous is Bengali culture with a certain brand of highbrow bhadralok literature (and music), that the earthier delights of its literary range often get overshadowed. This is something that The Moving Shadow: Electrifying Bengali Pulp Fiction seeks to rectify. An anthology of eight short stories and novellas, the pieces have been selected and translated by Arunava Sinha, whose prolific run as a translator shows no signs of abating.

And it’s a cracking selection as well, albeit a bit lopsided. The stories are divided into two parts, the first four grouped under “Crime Stories" and the remaining four under “Horror Stories". These labels do the selection an injustice. First of all, the first four take up the bulk of the book, while the ones grouped under horror account for a mere 32 pages. And many of the stories fall in neither category. They’re all truly pulp fiction—though of a highbrow variety—and excellent reads to boot. They cover a wide range of subjects, from a ventriloquist’s dummy gone rogue in Satyajit Ray’s Bhuto to schizophrenic psychosis in Gobindolal Bandyopadhyay’s Saradindu And This Body to international espionage in Vikramaditya’s The Secret Agent.

Unlike the literary novels that modern Bengali literature is best known for, these stories are crisp and nimble-footed, running through a gamut of emotions and seemingly impossible incidents with the turn of every page. Sinha does a stellar job of getting the tone of each story just right, considering the sheer diversity of voices and tones employed by the writers. While most of these stories are well-known to readers of Bengali literature, what is striking is how modern they all are, even the ones from many decades ago. Overall, they’re emblematic of an indigenous kind of Bengali noir, informed by the urban pile of Kolkata. Many of the stories are teasingly humorous, like the eponymous story by Swapan Kumar, which charts the pitting of wits between a shadowy organization called The Moving Shadow and a private investigator called Dipak Chatterjee. The writers of these stories were well-versed in their Raymond Carvers and Dashiell Hammetts, and it shows. The plots and their twists are, though, entirely original. The best of the lot is also one of the most recent, Copotronic Love by Muhammed Zafar Iqbal. It’s a deeply pathos-ridden take on Frankenstein, about a hubris-laden scientist who creates the world’s first “emotional" robot.

As Sinha says in the introduction, Bengali pulp fiction arrived on the literary scene in 1870, within five years of the first “modern" Bengali novel, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Durgeshnandini. Sinha notes that the genre has remained popular through the intervening century and some, even though the internet is now weaning readers away from fantastical and sleazy stories. Going by this compilation though,it’s high time Bengali pulp received more attention.

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