A year has passed since I wrote my blog post “Durga Puja 2017” and now with Puja here in the city once again, it’s time to start writing my new blog post- “Durga Puja 2018”. Last year’s Puja was my first one in seven years. Since I spent majority of those seven years far away from Calcutta, last year’s Puja felt very surreal. On the other hand, this Puja feels like a regular event in my life largely owing to the fact that I have visited Calcutta about once a month since last puja and hence have largely been able to re-establish my connection with the city.
In my last year’s Durga Puja post, I mentioned that this festival is not just about the five day long rituals and the pandals and the crowds but is also about the Bengali literature that is published before the festival in the form of puja magazines, the movies that come out in the theaters during the puja week, etc. But unlike my last year’s post where I talked about the pandals first followed by the magazines and the cinema, this time I shall follow a chronological order and hence first start with the works of fiction that I liked from this year’s Puja magazines, followed by the movies and then the pandals.
Pujabarshiki Anandamela comes out about two months prior to the Puja. About a month later Sharodiya Anandabazar Patrika gets published, and right around the inception of the festival the local newspaper and magazine distributor puts a fresh copy of Sharodiya Desh at one’s doorstep. As a result, by the time of writing this post which is during Mahaashtami and Mahanabami, I have been able to read the Ananadamela almost in its entirety, a large chunk of Ananadabazar Patrika and almost nothing from Desh. So here are the novels I liked so far from this year’s Puja literature.
Mahidadur Antidote (The antidote made by Mahidadu) by Dipanwita Ray (teenage science fiction novel)- published in Pujabarshiki Anandamela:
This is first time I actually read a science fiction novel in Bengali which can be called hard science fiction without any qualm. As I had pointed out before in an earlier blog post of mine on alchemy, the much adored science fiction stories by Satyajit Ray are way too much on the softer side. There are almost no scientific details in those stories, most of the events defy scientific logic and hence seem highly implausible. On the other hand, this novel is quite a successful attempt at creating an extremely scientifically accurate post-modern world, where humans commute from one place to another in flying cars, visit artificial parks for recreation where rivers, fountains and sea beaches from the natural world have been replicated for human entertainment, human DNA is corrected at birth to bring out the best features in humans, etc. Though it all seems to be an utopia initially, soon there is a turn of events which makes the protagonist question everything that he has been raised up on. The DNA of most humans is corrected at birth by some other humans in power such that an average human is rendered bereft of the power of creativity, imagination, skepticism and dissent. Similar dystopian vision of the world has been dealt with in modern classics like “Brave New World” and “1984” (sadly I haven’t read either yet) or popular movies like “The Matrix” and “Equilibrium”. Yet the plot of this novel “Mahidadur Antidote” seems quite original with the traditional Bengali emotional touch to all the events in the novel, which are vastly futuristic and global in scope and scale.
For me, the beauty of this sci-fi novel lies in the details with which all the different aspects of the post-modern world have been depicted though it has been written for teenagers. But I can imagine that this level of technical details will reduce its entertainment value for a lot of general readers. Nevertheless, since the society we live has become much more globalized and the amount of information an average person has access to has increased exponentially thanks to the internet, I feel it won’t be too inane to presume that such technically rich hard science fiction novels will capture the psyche of a Bengali reader, known for their intellectual curiosity and cultural refinement, and childish science fiction stories of Satyajit Ray with no technical details whatsoever will pass into oblivion. But sadly not many will probably read this novel. Rather they will continue talking about some Professor Shanku stories that came out forty years back and Satyajit Ray’ son Sandip Roy will make more big budget movies on them. Another glaring example of modern intellectual Bengalis living vicariously through past legends and ignoring gems of the present!
Jipur Jawa Asha (Jipu Goes Back and Forth) by Sourabh Mukhopadhyay (teenage fiction novel) – published in Pujabarshiki Anandamela:
Another beautiful novel that came out in this year’s Anandamela, though very different in flavor from the previous novel. It is largely about the changing times, how schooling has become extremely competitive and grueling in the cities and how refreshing and productive it can be for a kid to take a break from urban schooling and study in a countryside school for a while. The kid here, Jipu, who is the protagonist of the novel, is forced to go to a countryside school because his father loses his job and is unable to pay the heavy tuition fees of his current school, which is meant for kids from upper middle class urban families. Though his parents are traumatized by the experience and are deeply concerned about the future of their son, Jipu falls in love with his new school, thoroughly enjoys the laid back countryside lifestyle and even shows significant improvement in the academic performance. The novel is a joyful, refreshing and yet intriguing read and makes us question the various choices we, ultra urban people, are making everyday in our lives.
Mantra (Chant) by Binayak Bandopadhyay (novel) published in Sharodiya Anandabazar Patrika:
Sparsha by Krishnendu Mukhopdhyay and Tarabhora Akasher Niche by Srijato from last year’s puja magazines set my expectation very high regarding contemporary Bengali literature, and this year’s novel Mantra by Binayak Bandopadhyay did not disappoint. Just like Sparsha and Tarabhora Akasher Niche, Mantra has a very global feel to it. The events in the novel aren’t restricted to the periphery of Bengal but spreads across the globe, with a majority of the latter events happening in US- mainly on east coast academic campuses. According to me, contemporary Bengali literature, and in extension, the people can be broadly classified into two types- one which is affected by globalization and the one which isn’t. Quite naturally the former type seems much more attractive to me than the latter. In Mantra, the protagonist Uttaran spends his childhood in an Ashram in Calcutta in the company of Hindu saints and experiences a very spiritual upbringing. An extremely meritorious student, he goes to a top college in Calcutta for undergraduate training in Philosophy and then a top university in US for doctoral training in the same subject. But throughout this entire time he does not desert his monastic celibate lifestyle until a girl, Anasuya, who falls in love with him in Calcutta, follows him all the way to US to spend more time with him. The plot is pretty epic in its scope and takes several twists and turns after that as it follows the spiritual and academic trajectory of Uttaran- his giving up of celibacy and starting a family with Anasuya, raising a mute kid as a single parent, acquiring professional fame through his scholarly works on the Gita, and so on.
Uttaran’s internal struggle regarding the life choices he makes or circumstances force him to make is the central theme of the novel. He is shown to be torn apart internally several times, unable to make a confident choice between a monastic, spiritual, celibate life and a passionate, emotional, lustful family life. What I really liked about the novel that it adopts a very balanced and neutral approach and depicts the bright and dark sides of both these life choices. At a personal level, I largely agree with the writer on various points. If everybody in this world chooses to be a monk, this civilization will indeed cease to exist in a very short time. Sexuality is the driving force behind continuation of our species, and hence all the passion and emotional vulnerability that come with it need to be embraced rather than be shunned. Also, even if a monk chooses to live a family life driven by circumstances, they can always go back to their original lifestyle and can pursue spiritual advancement again in future.
I personally think that whether you are a monk or a family man, a celibate or a casanova, a musician or a clerk, you have to survive on this planet, find your own balance and live your life. So it really doesn’t matter much in the end. And death will strike upon everyone one time or the other, Even the most spiritually uplifted monks aren’t exempt from that. Yes, they can claim that our consciousness does not cease to exist. Extreme amount of dedication to spiritual practices in this life can lead to a much more peaceful after-life or something like that. The slight amount of subjectivity that always pervades our experience of the world we live in and our lack of understanding of the functioning of the brain certain leave space for such ideas, but based on personal experience, I can say that delving too much in such metaphysical ideas has quite a chance of bringing more suffering in life than happiness. Death is gonna come eventually to us all, and whether anything happens after death or not can be found out then. It’s far more enjoyable to enjoy this “real”, physical world we live in in all its diversity and derive pleasure from little things in life than obsessing oneself with abstract stuff like metaphysics and spirituality all the time. The protagonist Uttaran probably also feels the same several times during the course of the novel.
Overall, this novel is a great read. However one thing that probably makes it fall short of a classic unlike Sparsha and Tarabhora Akasher Niche is its weak narration style. I read Tarabhora Akasher Niche the second time very recently and it felt nearly as good as reading it the first time even though I knew the entire plot this time. This primarily happened because Srijato is one of the best Bengali poets of modern times and even the prose he writes reads like excellent poetry. The words resonated in my consciousness like some soulful melodies played on the sitar by some maestro. The places in which the events of the novel happen got beautifully projected in my mind as if I was sitting in front of a Vincent Van Gogh painting in an art gallery and relishing it alongside a cup of hot black coffee. Though this novel Mantra had plenty of scope of reaching that level of excellence since it dwelt upon spiritual life in India and academic life in the west, it quite failed to do so. Hardly any picture connected to Uttaran’s childhood or adult life gets painted in the eye of the mind while reading the novel. I kept turning the pages of this really long novel strictly because of the content. Hence, now that I have finished reading it once, I don’t think I will read it once again in near future.
Manojder Adbhut Bari (Manoj’s strange house), directed by Anindya Chatterjee
This movie is adapted from the critically acclaimed teenage fiction novel of the same name, written by prominent Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay. The novel came out several decades ago and kicked off Shirshendu’s Adbhuture series – a series of teenage fiction novels full of comic and mystical elements in a village setting. This series, along with Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series and Sunil Ganguly’s Kakababu series, forms the cornerstone of Bengali teenage fiction. I have read almost all the novels in this series barring this one- “Manojder Adhbut Bari”. But all the novels in the series have pretty much the same setting and the same kind of characters – a king who isn’t much aware of his surroundings, an ever vigilent thief, bunch of hilarious dacoits, a saint or a local lunatic who makes mystic statements which sound like rambling initially but later turns out to be extremely insightful, some conservative old lady and a few curious kids. The plos are also fairly similar – there is a treasure hidden somewhere in the village, its existence is never mentioned in the early part of the story but only gets acknowledged towards the middle and then rest of the story is about finding that treasure. As a result, though I didn’t know the plot, I had a fair idea of what’s coming next when I sat at the theater to watch the movie.
Probably for that reason and also because the plot turned out to be quite weak compared to Shirshendu’s other novels in the series like “Pagla Saheber Kobor”, “Jhiler Dhare Bari” and “Harano Kakatuya”, I didn’t enjoy the movie much. I won’t say that in the movie the director failed to bring out the typical Shirshendu brand of humor that pervades all the novels of the series. Rather I felt he was quite able to bring it out, just that it has stopped working on me. I had a similar experience when I read the Shirshendu novel that came out in this year’s Anandamela and the last year’s. Probably because I have read too much of it- the same humor and characters have been repeated every year in the puja edition of Anandamela for the last several decades. Also the world we live in has changed too rapidly since the inception of this Adbhuture series and Shirshendu’s Adbhuture world could not keep pace with it. As a result, I felt much more sad than irate after spending a huge chunk of money and time watching this movie on the day of its release- particularly when the author Shirshendu himself made a cameo towards the end of the movie and pretty much looked as old and obsolete as the world of his imagination.
Ek Je Chhilo Raja (There lived a king), directed by Srijit Mukherjee
These days Durga Puja has become incomplete without the release of a Srijit Mukherjee movie. So I had to check this one out- though I haven’t ever taken much interest in the famous Bhawal Sanyasi case or seen the Bengali classic movie “Sanyasi Raja”, based around it. In the beginning of “Ek Je Chhilo Raja”, Srijit makes the claim that his entire plot, barring the characters of the prosecution and defence lawyer, is based on historical facts and events . So it won’t be apt for me to critically review the movie without knowing all these historical facts. But, since I am quite interested in the history of Bengal and legal philosophy, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie with its historical references, intriguing courtroom drama, clash of ideas like feminism and patriotism, etc. The short conversation between the two lawyers, played by Aparna Sen and Anjan Dutt, was the most brilliant part of the movie for me. Sen’s dismissal of patriotism as an emotion centered around an abstract concept based building borders on a map echoes similar ideas that I had nurtured before but do not entertain much these days. Yes, a nation is an abstract concept based on borders drawn on a map, but those borders drawn on the map are quite related to distinct features in the physical world like mountains and seas. People who lived on different sides of a mountain or a sea hardly interacted across the ages and hence formed their own cultures and thereby their own countries. So patriotism is not that abstract a sentiment as some intellectuals portray it to be.
Another thing I really liked about the movie is there is no clear right and wrong in the story, just like in any mature drama. Both the prosecution and defense side think they have the higher moral ground. The conflict among laws of the physical world, laws institutionalized by humans to govern society and laws of the metaphysical or divine world, if anything like that at all exists, has interested me a lot over the years and this movie brings out that conflict beautifully towards the end. Overall, Srijit Mukherjee has made a brilliant movie once again and it shouldn’t be missed.
Using “Maharajo Eki Saje”, sung by favorite contemporary Rabindrasangeet singer Sahana Bajpayee, in the soundtrack made me even more happy about the movie, though the entire song seems to be lifted from her album “Ja Bolo Tai Bolo” that came out a few years ago as opposed to being reproduced specifically for the film.
Pandals / Street Art:
Here are some pictures from the puja pandals I visited this year. Much like the previous time, I only saw a few pandals in south Calcutta (Jodhpur Park- Tollygunge- Behala area) and some in North Calcutta (Hatibagan- Shovabazar area) this time. Here are the pictures from the very best of them.
Barisha Sarbojonin takes the city dwellers on a trip to the Anadamans, right among the Jarawas.
Dazzling orange-hued pandal and idol of the goddess in Shibmandir Sarbojonin- brick has been used as the main component of their pandal decorations.
Gorgeous interiors of old zamindar houses in puja pandals of Kasi Bose Lane and Ahiritola Sarbojonin
The old zamindar house atmosphere nicely emulated by Kasi Bose Lane Durga Puja Committee and Ahiritola Sarbojonin is present quite in its original form at Shovabazaar Rajbari.
The divine female, unarmed, rests in all her tranquility along with a repentant Mahisashura in an other worldly pandal made by Hatibagan Sarbojonin
That’s all from this year’s puja. Aschhe bochhor abar hobe.