Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet (KLM) is one of the more recent additions to the wide repertoire of cultural events that the city of Calcutta can boast of. Though now there are more than fifty literary festivals in different parts of the country in a single calendar year, Kolkata Literary Meet still retains its uniqueness, thanks to the star studded list of speakers it has every year, the aura of the Victoria Memorial which hosts the fest and the rich literary heritage of the city which probably hasn’t faded over the years. The poet Jeet Thayil jokingly mentioned during one of the talk sessions of the fest that this year’s KLM kicked off smoothly with a poetry session- an idea that would invite some retaliation in some other parts of the country.
The first KLM I attended was in January, 2016, when I was in the city for a month’s break from graduate school in US. My mind was in quite a turbulent state that time owing to some emotionally draining events that happened around me then, and I was desperately looking for new ideas and philosophies. I attended several one hour talk sessions of KLM 2016 and each of them provided me with food for thought for the next several months. I ended up buying the books, written by the speakers in all those sessions, in the Kolkata Book Fair that followed the literary meet, took them back to US with me, read them with great passion for months and had long and intense conversations about the ideas in those books with my friends in grad school.
I wasn’t in Calcutta during KLM 2017, but this year (2018) I made it a point to be in the city during KLM. After attending Durga Puja first time in seven years, I feel like my bond with the city has been re-established and hence no way would I have missed KLM 2018. Here are my thoughts on the sessions I attended and found intriguing and some pictures I took at the sessions (This shouldn’t be treated as a comprehensive summary or review of KLM 2018, I attended only a few sessions and my thoughts here are more on how the ideas conveyed in those sessions are connected to the central theme of my blog than on the ideas themselves):
It was surreal for most people in the audience including myself to not only see the iconic Bengali actor on stage, a few yards in front of them, but also have the opportunity to ask him questions. Even if this session had no topic whatsoever and the speaker simply talked of how he had spent his day, I would have been glued to my seat hearing the person, who played the roles of Apu, Feluda, Amal (Charulata), etc. on screen to perfection and formed a large part of my childhood, talk. The session however had a specific topic- the relevance of Sesher Kobita ,an iconic Bengali novel written by Rabindranath Tagore, in today’s times, and closed with Soumitro Chatterji reciting the last part of the novel, which is essentially a couple of poems where the two lovers bid each other goodbye, probably symbolic of the state of mind Tagore himself was in when he wrote the novel in the twilight of his career. The octogenarian actor elegantly reciting those poems with the darkness of the night slowly descending upon the magnificent Victoria Memorial in the background provided a mesmerizing moment that the people in the audience would probably remember for years to come.
Abastob, Agyato, Aparichito (Unreal, Unknown and Unfamiliar) – Md. Zafar Iqbal, Sirshendu Mukherjee and Binod Ghoshal
The topic of the session was “Unreal, Unknown and Unfamiliar” in literature and the speaker panel most aptly included the iconic Bengali writer Sirshendu Mukherjee, whose novels for children were one of the best parts of my childhood and featured a lot of ghosts in a humorous way, and Bangaldeshi author and researcher in physics and computer science, Md. Zafar Iqbal. It wasn’t unexpected that a session on the relevance of ghosts and mystic elements in Bengali adult fiction would end up dwelling upon the possibility of existence of an abstract world or metaphysical realm beyond the physical world, which has been the major theme of my blog.
The most educated and well thought argument I have encountered so far in favor of the existence of the metaphysical realm is that there is a always subjective element to our consciousness. No two individuals experience reality the same way. Hence one should always be flexible about their conception of reality, leaving enough room for events that are labeled supernatural now but can be considered “real” in future. Author Sirshendu Mukherjee seemed to adhere to this view when he said that he neither really believed or disbelieved in ghosts. At least that was my take home message from what he said.
The most educated and well thought out counter argument to the above argument I have heard is that there is no empirical evidence to conclusively support the existence of the metaphysical realm. It is quite possible that the neurons in our brain fire in particular sequences to give us that “illusion”. Author Md. Iqbal probably seemed to adhere to that view when he said that in his opinion ghosts don’t exist but ghost stories do and being a physicist by training, he didn’t give too much importance to meta-physics.
Benche Thakar Lekha – Anupam Roy
The focus of the session with Anupam Roy, one of the most popular singer- song writers of Bengal in the current times, was on the poems, novels and song lyrics that he wrote so far as opposed to his music which had given him more fame and money. Anupam seemed to be particularly proud of his maiden novel “Somoyer Baire”, from which he read an excerpt that dwelt upon three smart young guys- an aspiring mathematician, an aspiring entrepreneur and a guy without aspirations, who followed different trajectories in their careers and lives, that crisscrossed a few times when they were munching peanuts sitting below the Shahid Minar in Maidan and reflecting upon their lives. It sounded extremely familiar and interesting to me. “Somoyer Baire” probably got into my “To Buy” list for the upcoming Kolkata Book Fair.
Performance of “Meghnad Badh Kabya” by Gautam Haldar and Naye Natua
It will probably take me another few years of serious study of classical poetry, shadhu bhasha and theatrics to make a single comment about this epic poem and the performance. For now I just feel blessed that I witnessed this performance.
I don’t think any festival is celebrated in any part of the world the way Durga Puja is celebrated in Bengal, particularly Calcutta. The celebration of the arrival of Goddess Durga from her abode in Mount Kailash to our homes in Bengal is not merely restricted to a certain religion or group in the city. Though chanting of stotras in reverence of the goddess, fasting and worship of the goddess’s idol form an integral aspect of the puja, they are far from being the only aspects of it. Rather Durga Puja encompasses all aspects of culture- art, literature, music, movies, etc. with preparations for pandal decorations beginning in the city almost a year ahead of the puja, craftsmen coming from remote parts of Bengal to the capital to display their trade and earn a living, literature being published at its finest in esteemed Bengali magazines like Desh and Anandamela a few months prior to the puja, new “commercial” and “art” movies being released at the theaters a few weeks before the puja and the city dressing up with meticulously crafted pandals, housing both traditional and modern sculptures of the divine, at almost every corner for the four days of the actual festival.
Though Durga Puja in Calcutta had been an integral part of my childhood and college days I haven’t been in the city or the country during the puja for the last seven years, so Durga Puja 2017 was really special to me. Here are a few photographs and short reviews of some pandals I visited, some new novels and stories I read in Desh and Anandamela and some new Bengali movies I watched at the theaters during this year’s puja.
Pandals/ Street Art:
There is street art at almost every corner of the city during the four days of the puja, in the form of puja pandals. I visited some pandals both in North and South Calcutta this time, the decorations and Durga idols of which ranged from traditional to modern (“theme pujas”). Here are some photographs I took of the pandals I liked the most with brief descriptions of each.
Best exterior decoration:
Best interior decorations:
I read this year’s Pujabarshiki (Puja edition) Anandamela (most popular magazine for new Bengali teenage fiction) almost in its entirety and also some of the novels from this year’s Sarodiya (Puja edition) Desh (most popular magazine for new Bengali fiction)and Anandabazaar Patrika .These are the novels/ short stories I really liked.
Nihsabda Mrityu (Silent Death) by Sukanta Gangyopadhyay (teenage detective novel):
A very popular opinion currently in Calcutta is that Bengali literature, particularly children/ teen’s literature, is in decay. It is not hard to buy the prevalent opinion given the demise of Satyajit Ray (creator of Feluda) and Sunil Ganguly (creator of Kakababu) and aging of Sirshendu Ganguly (creator of the “Odbhuture” series) and Samaresh Majumdar (creator of Arjun). However one detective/ adventure series that stands out in today’s teenage literature is Sukanta Ganguly’s “Dipkaku” series. It probably started about a decade back in Pujabarshiki Anandamela and I had always liked it. This year’s Dipkaku novel was no exception. The plot was quite intriguing, innovative and unpredictable. I know my opinion would raise many eyebrows but I would still go on to state that Dipkaku is the best sleuth that Bengali fiction has produced after Byomkesh and Feluda. Kakababu and Arjun, despite their popularity, were never really detectives. Their stories were mostly adventures with very few elements of puzzle solving characteristic of a typical detective story. Things just happened in those stories- the villain revealed himself to Kakababu and Arjun at some point, they didn’t really follow clues to reach the villain. On the other hand, Sukanta Ganguly’s Dipkaku series is a textbook example of detective fiction, with the detective Dipkaku following each and every clue at the crime scene to get to the villain. It is probably time to lift Dipkaku from the not so read pages of Anandamela to the silver screen for next year’s Puja season.
Tuatara by Debashish Bandyopadhyay (teenage adventure novel)
My first impression of this novel is that it is extremely dense. That’s probably a good thing particularly because the setting of the novel is also a very dense forest in the Garo Hills of north-east India. Not only is this short novel full of facts about the geography and folklore of Garo hills which were unknown to me before but also it is jam packed with action. I often turned back the pages to keep track of all that was going on.
Passages to the abstract world, of which I talked about in the introduction post of my blog, are present here in abundance disguised as tales in Garo folk lore. However keeping in mind the young audience or probably out of his own lack of interest about the abstract realm, the author did not let the readers indulge themselves in those mind altering trajectories. The monologue and actions of the main villain deep inside the cave towards the ending of the novel were still too violent and trippy for the teenage readers but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
One issue I had with the novel was that the story of the bad guy killing his twin brother and taking his place had been repeated too many times in Bengali teenage fiction, making the plot quite predictable. Satyajit Ray’s Feluda short story “Kailash Chowdhurir Pathar” had that plot and so did a Suchitra Bhattacharya’s Mitin Mashi novel, published a few years ago in Anandamela (forgot its name, the setting of the novel was the Sundarbans).
Loukik (Real) by Samaresh Majumdar (short story)
With Samaresh Majumdar being a veteran Bengali writer who mostly wrote about relationships and political activism in his novels, I did not anticipate this short story to be surreal at all when I started reading it. But to my surprise, it turned out to be an extremely well written surreal story of cops visiting a woman’s apartment and never getting out. The passage to the abstract world is present in full form in this short story that lasts only a few pages. Hats off to the writer and Bengali literary culture in general for this hidden gem!
Tarabhora Akasher Niche (Under a starry sky) by Srijato (novel)
This novel by the famous contemporary Bengali poet Srijato tells the stories of Vincent VanGogh and a schizophrenia patient in modern day Calcutta in parallel. The scrizophrenia patient was introduced to Vincent VanGogh and the famous “Starry Night” painting during his childhood. Since then he pursued painting actively and dreamt of becoming a famous painter one day, but had to give up on his dream owing to a lot of unfortunate and heart breaking events- death of his teacher and mentor from childhood who had actually introduced him to “Starry Night”, an act of plagiarism committed by his best friend and colleague, and of course discouragement from his middle-class family due to the uncertain future associated with pursuing a career in art. The suppressed desire of becoming a painter, coupled with the death of his dearest brother due to a misunderstanding between them, started making him hallucinate. The novel reached its climax when his wife, in order to solidify the distinction between reality and imagination in his mind, brought him to the Museum of Modern Art at New York so that he could see the actual “Starry Night” painting with his own eyes.
This novel probably epitomizes the journey of the human mind through a constant battle between solipsism and empiricism, which is the central theme of my blog. The novel has all the elements necessary to take the readers on that journey- post-impressionist art, a “crazy” painter, the experience of solitude, the nuances of brotherly love and sexual love, mental disorders and of course death. In my opinion, this is a landmark novel in modern Bengali literature and no Bengali reader should miss it. Also it certainly deserves a read by people who don’t know Bengali. I am hoping for an English translation of the book to come out soon.
Sparsha (Touch) by Krishendu Mukhopadhyay (novel)
This novel by Krishnendu Mukhopadhyay is similar in style to Srijato’s novel “Tarabhora Akasher Niche”. It also narrates two stories in parallel- one story set in the historical past and the other set in modern Calcutta. However the stories are very different in flavor from that in Srijato’s novel, but they are still equally serious and intriguing.
The first story here is of a Bengali pilot fighting for the Royal Air Force during World War II who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. The second story is that of a young lady in modern day Calcutta who interrogates several surviving family members of the pilot to figure out why an old Jewish lady left a huge sum of money for the pilot at the time of her death. The novel is brilliantly written. It is extremely informative and has several touching moments that poignantly bring out the horror of the largest war fought in the history of mankind and the atrocities committed in the Jewish concentration camps.
In my opinion, these two novels perfectly bring out the contrast between two subjects I always found really fascinating- philosophy and history. Philosophy, particularly philosophy of the mind, analyzes events in the mental world of one individual much more than events in the physical world. Since it’s much harder for multiple individuals to agree upon details of events in their own mental world-s than agreeing upon events in the same physical world they all share, philosophy ends up having way more interpretations than facts. Also extraordinary events in the physical world like world wars don’t feature much in philosophy.
Srijato’s novel, which is of extremely philosophical nature and largely dwells on issues connected to the mental world of two individuals- Van Gogh and the scrizophrenia patient in modern day Calcutta- whether the world we live in is real or is an illusion, what is the nature of absolute reality, what is the purpose of existence- talks of very few relatively ordinary events in the lives of some people and yet scrutinizes those events with great precision in order to obtain deep insights regarding the mental world .
On the other hand, history is largely a study of events that happened in this physical world- mostly extraordinary ones which impacted the lives of multitudes of individuals, and hence deals largely with facts. It’s true that history also involves the act of interpretation and hence also deals with events in the mental world that ultimately trigger extraordinary events in the physical world. But still, history, as far as I understand, has way more facts than philosophy and the interpretations used in history are more simplistic than that in philosophy, at least at the level of an individual or relationships among a few individuals. For example, history books don’t deal much with how consciousness flows within an individual, how their thoughts move across in time, etc. and argue about the purpose of existence unlike philosophy books. Instead the history books kind of assume that people living together in peaceful times are happy and only deal with extraordinary events like wars, famines, tyranny etc. that adversely affect the lives of those people and perturb their happiness.
This novel “Sparsha” also implicitly makes some simplistic interpretations about the meaning of life, on which philosophers have argued for ages. For example, it assumes that the purpose of life is to be happy and make your near and dear ones happy. Hence the Jewish family which was living together in a picturesque European village was indeed a perfectly happy family. Under that assumption the novel is all about how an extraordinary event like the Nazi attack of their village during World War II made their lives more complicated and miserable. On the other hand, in the other novel, Van Gogh, who also lived in Europe in peaceful times surrounded by mostly ordinary events, and the scrizophrenia patient who lived in a peaceful modern day Calcutta, both went through several periods of depression and existential crisis, and eventually killed themselves pondering over issues related to an abstract world that existed in their minds.
I myself have spent a lot of time over the last few years making myriads of interpretations about existential issues and the mental world with not much happening in the physical world, quite similar in spirit to the theme of Srijato’s novel “Tarabhora Akasher Niche”. After reading “Sparsha”, I have also become quite interested in learning more facts connected to extraordinary events in the history of mankind like World War II and then making some interpretations regarding how such a massive event in the physical world was caused by some events happening in the mental world of some extraordinary individuals and how it affected the mental world of the millions of individuals who suffered from it.
Okay now let’s stick to my promise of not making this blog too dark and grave, and get back to lighter stuff. Talking about that, the cover page of this year’s Pujabarshiki Anandamela deserves a special mention. I scratched my head for quite some time to figure out why there is an elephant in the picture given that the elephant is not the vahana of any of Durga’s family members. Wonder what staying away from Calcutta for seven years, doing a PhD and indulging too much in the trajectories to the abstract world does to your head!!!
Kakababur Obhijaan, directed by Srijit Mukherji
Srijit Mukherji’s movies have apparently become an integral part of Bengali’s Durga Puja celebrations. Every year he makes one movie and releases it the week before Puja. This year he made his second Kakababu movie. It is based on the novel “Paharchuray Atonko”, which I read in a month long high school break between the end of final examination of fifth grade and start of classes of sixth grade. Nothing much happens in the first half of the novel- only Kakababu and Santu sitting in a dome on the top of an extremely tall mountain in the Himalayan range in freezing cold and making observations connected to the giant teeth of a mysterious animal often called the Yeti. Then suddenly in the middle of the novel Santu (or probably Kakababu) falls through a fissure and then the plot takes a sharp turn. The rest of the novel is jam-packed with action. As a kid, I loved that slow build up to that sudden twist and gave the novel several reads as a result.
The same thing is repeated in the movie much to my delight- the first half is pretty uneventful and the second half is jam-packed with action. The movie can be watched just for the sake of Aryan Bhowmik, playing the role of Santu. Equipped with amazingly good looks, martial arts skills (he is extremely comfortable in the fight scenes because he actually knows karate), dance skills (he is also a good dancer in real life but there was no scope to exhibit those skills yet in Srijit’s Kakababu series) and decent acting skills, he is certainly the next Tollywood megastar in the making.
The most memorable part of the movie for me is the theme song. The lines “Dur Digonte Prosno Hajar, Mati te pa tai porlo Rajar” have stayed with me even after I left the theater. Unless you read a lot of Kakababu in childhood you would probably not get why those lines are so special, or why is even there a mention of Raja (king) in a movie with urban middle-class protagonists.