First there was the Indian writer in English, and it was good. Then came the Pakistani writer in English, and some say it was better. Now it is Bangladesh’s turn. Of course, if Shazia Omar’s depiction of Bangladeshi youth is anywhere near authentic then it’s going to be tough for them to string a sentence together through that haze of smack, yabba and other vein-snapping drugs. Her novel “Like a Diamond in the Sky” is a little gem that blindingly sparkly in parts and cloudy in others. When she hurtles through the electric rush of a high and the painful crackle of withdrawal, the novel is intense enough to make you hold your breath as you race through the words that make up her sentences. It isn’t an easy read because of what she’s describing and also because she smoothly inserts Bangla slang into her storytelling like an expert dealer who slips that little packet into his client’s palm with sure-fingered subtlety. There’s no glossary to decode meanings,  not that you really need it. The meaning of turquing or khor or dosto isn’t too hard to figure out but you piece the meanings together as you read and they linger in your memory. Turquing, for example, is one word that has been haunting me. I’m left remembering all the friends whom I’ve witnessed trying to survive those moments when their bodies bite into themselves because they need another hit so damn badly.

It’s when Omar gives in to the temptation to become the bard of Bangladesh that her novel becomes slack. There are sections of “Like a Diamond in the Sky” when the omniscient narrator decides to pontificate upon the state of the nation and Omar tries to weave this into the storytelling but it’s an awkward fit. This need to insert a social commentary so that a novel isn’t only the story of a set of characters but also the nation in a nutshell is a cross that South Asian authors eagerly take upon their shoulders only to crumple under its weight. Almost every postcolonial South Asian author wants to write something that is relevant, insightful and somehow holds up a mirror to the society they see around them. For some reason, it isn’t enough to tell a story and build characters. Jhumpa Lahiri’s works have to be a chorus for the middle class non-resident Indian in America. Amitav Ghosh’s novel has to be steeped in accurate history that shows India in detail-heavy authenticity. Not that any of this is a bad thing but I really wish sometimes that our writers would just have fun with their writing and tell us a story. And not in the silly way that pulp authors like Chetan Bhagat do. The problem is we don’t value fun enough to realise that quality entertainment is as hard to craft as philosophical truths.

Narayan Gangopadhyays Teni-da

Narayan Gangopadhyay's Teni-da

There’s a whole bunch of guys in Bengali literature, like Sukumar Ray, Sharadindu Bandopadhyay, Narayan Gangopadhyay and Premendra Mitra, who wrote stories that were officially kiddie literature but they’re wonderful, silly stuff that’s a blast to read no matter how old you are. Translated, they turn vaguely clunky and stodgy because the language, its phonetics and the colloquialisms are integral to the story telling. There hasn’t been anyone among the South Asian writers in English who writes stories like these rather average Bong writers. Light, clever, often hilarious and constantly entertaining, those old Bengali stories are a joy to read decades later even though the city and its people have changed dramatically since the ’40s and ’50s when Ray and gang were writing. Like most Bengali kids today, Omar’s Bangladeshi boys and girls don’t know these stories. Their realities follow the notes and melodies of Bob Dylan and Tom Petty songs. The khors of Omar’s world are beautifully-crafted creatures and their agonies are piercing. But after finishing “Like a Diamond in the Sky” (slightly blah and predictable ending, by the way), it was time for me to get my fix. So out came Teni-da and Ghana-da, who are addicted to their tea and cigarettes and too busy being silly to make any searingly insightful points about contemporary Bengali society. Bless.

8 thoughts on “Eastern promise

  1. ah. Teni-da and Ghana-da 🙂
    “elahgrandeemephistophifeliciayakeah!!” isn’t this Teni-da’s famous exclamation?

    i haven’t read the Penguin translation of Ghanada, but in the early 80s NBT had published one which was interesting because the translator, Lila Majumdar, was a celebrated children’s author herself.

    And i think around the same time, Ray created a new character, Tarini-khuro (Tarini uncle) that was really a Ray version of Ghana-da. Like Ghana-da, the Tarini-khuro stories too had a men’s hostel as its immediate context, with a master raconteur (Tarini) holding court. Some of the stories were interesting but it had none of that witty and whimsical magic of Ghana-da.

    What do you think of Shirshendu Mukherjee and his sci-fi / fantasy novellas like “Bony” or “Potashgorer Jongole”?

  2. i SO totally agree!

    eavesdropped on the previous comment, so taking that further, wasnt it ‘di-la-grandi-mephistopheles’ or something? i remember reading this very Tenida Shomogro, around the same time i was reading Ray and Shibraam and Premendo Mitra…horshobordhon and gobordhon were also quite hilarious 🙂 Lila Majumdar was, incidentally Ray’s aunt (pishi) if i’m not wrong and i remember a funny story she once wrote on the monkeys of Benares. Tarini Khuro used to even bring along his favourite darjeeling brand of ‘cha’ sometimes…its crazy how many of us remember these characters through the trademark illustrations, particulary the ones Ray made of Feluda, Tarini and Shonku…

    ah, anyway. this brought back so much, so thanks 🙂

  3. Oh yes! The illustrations and the illustrators.
    An artist friend of mine has been planning a project on the Ananda Bazaar illustrators: Subrata Choudhuri, Debashish Deb, Bimal Das and others

    Now, speaking of Bimal Das:
    These days, in Calcutta, you might spot characters from Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol adorning the walls of local neighbourhoods. (obviously part of some ‘beautifying the neighbourhood project’ – the proverbial ‘para’ brightened up with community art etc etc) Now, the original illustrations on which these wall drawings are modelled after, are often not the Sukumar Ray illustrations, but rather the Bimal Das ones that accompanied a cheap, but extremely popular edition of Abol Tabol that was published in the 70s. This particular edition is still in circulation in the numerous ‘pirated’ copies that are still easily available.

    And talking of illustrated characters: how about Cacofonix (from the Asterix series) as a soul-brother of Sukumar Ray’s Bhismalochan Sharma?

  4. It was “delagrandemephistophelesyackyack”, which I hollered loudly for years. Great word. Nice little French touch too. Move over, Mary Poppins.

    Error, Lila Majumdar is wonderful and it’s a source of wonder to me how such a crotchety woman could write such sweet stories. Remember “Iti Sri Gaja-r ekmatro asray”? And hooray for Horsebirdon. 😀

    Anagram, your friend’s project sounds great. Bengal has a wonderful tradition of cartoonists, beginning back in the Kalighat pictures era and then the 1800s when they got inspired by Brit satire. The post-independence guys don’t get enough love. I hope it sees the light of day. For the longest time I wanted to make a website that would be Teni-da’s street but translations in English just don’t work for these guys. Doesn’t work for Syed Mujtaba Ali either, whose work I’m getting into at the moment.

  5. Pingback: links for 2009-09-04 « Rumblegumption

  6. yes, yes…Chacha Kahini? 🙂

    The illustrator/illustration project sounds really nice…i have that very copy of the Abol Tabol and remember tripping on the drawings accompanying ‘Khuror Kol’, ‘Ramgorurer Chhana’ and ‘Haanshjaru’. For the longest time i had plans of animating some of these…oh and ‘Bombagoder Raja’ 😀

    i agree with anon, the post independence illustrators got hardly any recognition, remember their work in magazines like Anondomela, the later editions of Shondesh and Robibashoriyo (the sunday AB supplement)???

    dying to see the walls in Calcutta 🙂

  7. I think I was named after one of the writers of nonsense verse (listed by anon), but being from the great indo-gangetic plain I never had an idea that he had such fan following among the lit kids of amar sonar bangla. You made me want to read the original works of these writers.

    A maharashtrian friend of mine also mentioned that there are some really funny writers whose works in marathi are howlarious too.

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