In the sixties Sunil Gangopadhyay, already a well-known poet, wrote his first two novels: Jubak Jubati and Atma Prakash, spearheading a movement that brought the Bengali novel out of the shadows of romance and cautious social comment to the glare of harsh introspection and relentless probing into the tensions of a post-Independence urban reality. Recording the uncertainties and tribulations of a ‘lonely crowd’ consequent upon the movement of people from one way of life to another, Sunil Gangopadhyay examines states of alienation and exile and analyses the methods that were being employed by the younger generation to overcome them— a generation that he projects as now rebellious, now beaten. The jubak jubati (young men, young women) of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Kolkata, driven by negative emotions unknown in their hitherto cloistered, conventional lives, flock the streets. Admittedly the Kolkata of the sixties provided ample material for the writing of ruthlessly realistic fiction. Sunil Gango-padhyay seized the opportunity. The novel, in his hands, became ‘a slice of life’.
Structurally, these novels and the ones that follow proclaim a triumphant ‘non-structure’. Sukh Asukh, Aranyer Din Ratri, Hridaye Probas, Pratidwandi and Rupali Manabi have often been labelled as ‘narratives without a narrative’. Beginning at a random point, e.g. “Paritosh came this morning. ‘What do you gentlemen think you’re doing?’ he said, “there’s a limit to everything, ’” (Atma Prakash ) Sunil Gangopadhyay takes his readers through a series of characters and events that appear unrelated. The reality, however, is that the threads, held securely in the author’s hand, move with simple but deft strokes towards the making of a superb fabric. There are no holes or faded patches in this fabric. No floundering. And despite the absence of the romantic and the heroic, of individuals of magnitude, there is no flagging of interest. The mesmerized reader goes through the motions of conversion of non-drama into drama; of the ordinary into the extraordinary.
After these early novels Sunil Gangopadhyay started enlarging his canvas. The next three decades saw the publication of four mega novels—Eka Ebong Koyekjon, Sei Samai, Purba Paschim and Pratham Alo—and Sunil Gangopadhyay’s disengagement from a hitherto overwhelming present. Each of these novels is an enormous chess board over which hundreds of pawns are moved with skilled precision towards a seemingly unconceived conclusion. We find serious historical research here, anthropological study, social and religious enquiry and examination of values. There are vast galleries of character portraits, historical and fictional, inhabiting spaces not many writers would have the courage to explore leave alone expose. Sunil Gango-padhyay does it with the inimitable verve that characterizes his style—a quality that has enabled him to retain his position as the leading novelist of Bengal for four decades.
His latest offering—the novella under review here—is written in a totally different vein from all his previous work lending credence to the view that Sunil Gangopadhyay never ceases to surprise. Roopkathar Manush poses a number of questions. The first of them relates to form. Is it a fairy tale or a folk tale? An allegory or a piece of tribal lore dredged from ancient cultural memory? Is it a dream sequence or a flight of pure fantasy? Or could it be a combination of all these things?
The second question pertains to location. The story is set in a land—nameless and timeless—with no recognizable spatial dimensions. There are high mountains here cradling silvery streams and blue lakes dotted with lotus. The slopes are covered with dense jungles full of bears and tigers, snakes, hyenas, wolves and jackals. Strange trees grow in the jungle. From the jibil tree drips a clear sap which, when touched to the tongue, induces a series of dreams, each one sweeter than the last. There are real trees too. Date palms and tamarind.
The race that inhabits this land is strong and beautiful. The men are ruthless and warlike. Might for them is Right. The women are paragons of beauty with glistening gold skins and eyes like burning sapphires. Many of them have powers that are more than human. Yet they live as a disciplined tribe with laws that are adhered to scrupulously. There is a power hierarchy that is easily recognized. A raja or king holds supreme sway over a number of headmen or goshthipatis. Each goshthipati rules a village and his word is law.
Primitive societies, in which human behaviour is more consistently ritualized than in developed societies, valorize loyalty and deify the chief of the clan. Thus when seventeen-year-old Ruh is punished by the goshthipati for an offence committed by his brother the whole village is pitted against him. He is made to stand, day after day, under a blazing hot sky his hands strapped to two iron posts on either side. On a machan above his head is a pot of water with a hole in it. The steady drip of water on his head is calculated to drive him mad. But why such a terrible punishment for another’s crime? The law of the land permits it. Blood feuds, persisting over generations, are not uncommon here. This case, however, is different. Ruh will not be killed. He will be kept alive as bait to ensnare his brother. Ruh makes a fortuitous escape into the forest where he finds the dying Raja Yuvaan. Yuvaan who was forced to leave his kingdom owing to a terrible disease which is killing him slowly but surely, places a strange proposition before the amazed Ruh.
Yuvaan’s soul would enter Ruh’s body and inhabit it for six months which is all the time left to him. The two souls would live in the same body just as mother and foetus do in pregnancy. With his superior experience and wisdom Yuvaan would guide Ruh out of the forest and lead him to fame and prosperity. In return Ruh would fulfil Yuvaan’s last wishes. The first—to kill the invincible Raja Bhisham in battle; the second to taste the sap of the jibil tree. His third and greatest wish was to sleep with a woman he had seen only once but could never forget. She lived in a cave in the depths of the mountains and made marvellous etchings on the rocks around her. So great was her fame that many men came from far and wide to see her etchings. She was, Yuvaan said, so beautiful that her body seemed formed of light.
The perilous journey begins. Fantasy and universal truth are woven together in a surrealistic dream sequence. Yuvaan leads Ruh through the path of dreams to the three things he craved. They find Bhisham, the jibil tree and the etcher on the rocks—the beautiful Burusa. But who is Burusa? Is she the woman Yuvaan has desired all his life or is she Ruh’s mother? Yuvaan is only a soul inhabiting Ruh’s body. Will Ruh, then, be condemned to sleeping with his own mother? Will Ruh reach his final destination—the line where the sky meets the earth? Where fairy tale merges into pre-history?
Which brings us to the question: is Sunil Gangopadhyay, who has few equals in the realm of the realistic novel, now experimenting with another form—the visionary novel? Fatigued by the burden of social documentation, past and present, that he has carried for so long, is he now studiously evading the actual and escaping to a private world of guilt and fantasy? Admittedly, fatigue is crippling and disengagement with the real world saddening, making the transition from the dust bowl to the ivory tower a smooth and easy option.
Yet it is hard to say how much of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s withdrawal is owing to an already historic impatience with realistic techniques and how much to the nature of reality itself. Rather than showing a simple evasion of seriousness I suggest that Sunil Gangopadhyay is now, like many others of his ilk, being thrust in upon himself and his own resources. In a world which cannot be changed and perhaps not even be understood, the great creative mind, wearied by irony and negativistic reporting, grasps at something really simple. Original and primieval. Roopkathar Manush, to me, does not suggest evasion. Rather it demonstrates a most effective form of responsibility. It cuts down and through to the truth as documentary realism cannot.
Aruna Chakravarti retired as Principal, Janaki Devi Mahavidyalaya, New Delhi.