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  Books   17 Dec 2023  Book Review | Spectres and spirits of Bengal past

Book Review | Spectres and spirits of Bengal past

Published : Dec 17, 2023, 1:35 am IST
Updated : Dec 17, 2023, 1:35 am IST

Sucheta Dasgupta has carefully selected and translated six of Mukhopadhyay's stories in the folk/fairy tale and fantasy genre

Coverpage of 'Tales of Early Magic Realism in Bengali'.
 Coverpage of 'Tales of Early Magic Realism in Bengali'.

One of the leading lights of nineteenth-century Bengal, Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay, had a rather interesting resume that began with humble school teacher and ended with assistant curator of the Indian Museum in Calcutta. In between, he was a policeman, journalist, and a senior figure in the Government of India’s agriculture and revenue departments. Finally, with all that rich and varied experience behind him, he became a full time writer.

Sucheta Dasgupta has carefully selected and translated six of his stories in the folk/fairy tale and fantasy genre. While most are like Grimms’ fairy tales with magic spells and remedial quests that involve hardships like climbing the highest of mountains, there are two big differences: Mukhopadhyay’s tongue-in-cheek humour, and his satirical commentary on the Indian society of his times. We meet superstitious people who are frightened of losing their caste and religion if they behave like the British. One of the characters is ostracised by his community because someone saw him eating ice: “Gracious me! Does he take ice? Ice that is made of the blood of the cow by the British men? I see now that everyone is soon to lose their faith in no time. Alas, and alack! The Hindus are about to be extinct from the face of this earth…”. Mukhopadhyay also pokes fun at Indians who slavishly emulate the British, why, there’s even a frog that dresses up like a pucca sahib and speaks only in English or else people may dismiss it as a mere native!

It’s not just human beings who resent the British in this collection, it’s other creatures too. Mosquitoes feel that they are in grave danger of losing their rightful amount of Indian blood, because under the influence of the British, Indians have taken to travelling, and are even crossing the kala paani and going abroad. Ghosts are equally upset because Indians have stopped believing in them, and traditional livelihoods like exorcism have vanished. As someone piteously complains, “The citizens of this hapless country have become so anglicised that if someone falls under the spell of a ghost or to the charms of a witch they pronounce that they have been struck by hysteria.”

There are two gems in this collection: Treks of Kankabaty is more like Lewis Carroll’s joyful Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass fantasies, and less grim than a standard Grimms’ fairy tale. Kankabaty falls into her own wonderland and meets creatures with loads of attitude! But perhaps the most charming story is ‘Lullu’, about a ghost who spirits a woman away from her husband Aamer. We meet the who’s who of Indian ghostdom during Aamer’s quest to get his wife back.

While children will enjoy this collection for the fantasy, adults will probably enjoy it even more for the commentary. It isn’t written in contemporary English, though, the style is more in keeping with age old folk tales. This is a call the translator has to take and Dasgupta has clearly chosen to stick to the spirit of the past.

Tales of Early Magic Realism in Bengali

By Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay

Translated by Sucheta Dasgupta

Niyogi Books

pp. 386, Rs 595



Tags: translation, book review 2023, book review, trailokyanath mukhopadhyay, sucheta dasgupta