My tryst with science fiction stories was not in my mother tongue, which is Bengali. Just like hundreds of children in India, I was first introduced to stories through books written by English authors, and those too white and male. I was thus pretty much oblivious to the rich repository of Bengali books that have adorned my father’s bookshelf forever. Strangely enough, I never bothered to skim through them in my childhood, until one day I was struck to find a cover which closely resembled one of the books that I had been assigned in the science fiction course I took up in college. It was called “Professor Shonku”, and had the picture of a bald man with white beard and a sign of the stereotypical crazy genius in his eyes.
As I flipped through the pages, I came across a story named “Byomjatrir Diary” and started reading it. The narrative began with a poor man approaching the editor of the Sandesh magazine with a journal by Professor Shanku, a scientist who apparently disappeared 15 years back. On reading the diary, the editor came to know that the scientist, despite being mocked by his neighbour, Abinashbabu, was getting prepared for a voyage to Mars. This was the first instance of inter-planetary travel that I had come across in Bengali literature, and it made me remember novels like The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Since then, there has been no turning back. In fact, it led me to take a detour from reading literature written in English to those written in my mother tongue, which eventually made me aware of a few stark similarities between the two.
The themes of science fiction novels of both the literatures were in tandem with the dynamics of scientific discoveries and technological innovations around the world. Bengali writers wrote various science fiction works in the 19th and early 20th centuries in colonial India, before its partition. In fact it might be a bit shocking to get to know that it existed even as early as the 1880s, since most studies of Bengali literature tended to center around the humanistic literature of Tagore, who was extremely suspicious about modern technology. However, the effects of the Industrial Revolution were being felt in urban India in the 19th century just as intensely as they were in Europe and the U.S., and at least some Indian writing reflected that.
The earliest notable Bengali science fiction novel was Jagadanda Roy’s “Shukra Bhraman” (Travels to Venus) which delineated inter-planetary travel in great detail. His description of the alien creatures that are seen in Uranus used an evolutionary theory similar to the Charles Darwin’s origins of man. Interestingly, this story was published a decade before H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds in which Wells describes the aliens from Mars. Some Bengali science fiction aficionados credit Hemlal Dutta as one of the earliest Bengali science fiction writers for his story, “Rohosso” (The Mystery).
The story revolves around the protagonist Nagendra’s visit to a friend’s house, a mansion which is completely automated and where technology is deified. Automatic doorbell, burglar alarms, brushes for cleaning suits mechanically are some of the innovations described in the story. The tone is one of wonder at the rapid automation of human lives. In 1896, scientist Jagadish Bose imagined a cyclone that goes mysteriously missing en route to Calcutta spirited away with the help of a bottle of Kuntal Kesari hair oil emptied into a choppy sea.
However, the most enduring writing in this genre came from the famous Ray family which has given birth to one of the most prolific writers of the generation – Sukumar Ray, and his son, Satyajit Ray, who was a highly accomplished writer when he wasn’t making world class art films. Sukumar Ray’s stories are highly intellectually stimulating, even those that are intended for children.They are full of puzzles and language games, and demand a certain level of intelligence for comprehending. It is quite likely that he was reading british writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells as he was writing The Diary of Heshoram Hushiar. In this story, he engages in cross-linguistic word-play, using words like “Gomratharium” and “Chillanosaurus”, something that experimental modernist writers like James Joyce were doing in Europe in the 1920s too.
Sukumar’s son, Satyajit Ray, was also quite playful with language in the short stories he wrote. His “Professor Shanku” stories are full of gadgets and devices with exotic names. “Professor Shanku” stories narrate the fantastic world of Shanku’s adventures, inventions and travels. These stories are also travelogues, fantasy tales, tales of adventure and romance. The names of the things Professor Shanku had invented include Anhihiline, Miracural, Omniscope, Snuffgun, Mangorange, Camerapid, Linguagraph and many others. Another prominent author who indulged heavily in sci-fi and fantasy was Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay whose book “Manojder Adbhut Bari” involved a scientist carrying out genetic experiments for producing new varieties of vegetables and fruits.
The Bengali name for science fiction, “Kalpavigyan”, was coined by Adrish Bardhan. He started a science fiction magazine called “Ashchorjo” after being inspired by western science fiction magazines like “Astounding” and “Galaxy”. He started this magazine in the 1960s, a time when it was the Golden Age of science fiction in the westerm world, and writers like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein were at the peak of their careers. It was an era of reform, not only in India, but in the Bengali literary world. While the subcontinent was struggling to find its economic sovereignty, Bengali literature was recuperating from the void left by Rabindranath Tagore and his contemporaries. It was at such a time that Adrish Bardhan came into prominence.
Apart from original works, his magazine “Ashchorjo” contained translations of science fiction from the west, including the works of Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Bardhan wrote short story anthologies related to science fiction named Mahakashjatri Bangali (Bengalis in Space) and Sabuj Manush (Green Men) with contributions by other writers including Satyajit Ray, Premendra Mitra, and Dilip Roychowdhury. Another magazine started by him after a brief hiatus was “Fantastic”. However, it was not limited to science fiction, but included speculative fiction, fantasy and horror as well. Well-known authors like Sunil Gangopadhyay, Syed Mustafa Siraj, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Anish Deb, Siddhartha Ghosh wrote for Fantastic.
Bengali science fiction had started out ambitiously in the larger backdrop of the Bengali Renaissance and its embrace of modernity. The genre still remains largely a male domain, with the exception of the story of feminist utopia by Rokeya Hossain in Sultana’s Dream. It was a place where women ran everything and the men stayed in the zenana. Writers like Parashuram married sci-fi with biting satire. Hemendra Kumar Ray wrote about superhumans whose minds ruled over their bodies in Amanushik Manush. But, somewhere, along the way, sci-fi got pigeonholed as pulp. In the mid-eighties, Bardhan had inaugurated the Kalpabiswa which hoped that they could push it to mature beyond its pulp persona, to include themes of sexual freedom, race, LGBT movement etc into its narrative.
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