There is a Bengali social institution called an adda that is very hard to capture in mere words. It is much more than a conversation because usually at least three people are talking at the same time. It is at times a debate but then some of the debaters are liable to argue for both sides of the subject if they are feeling particularly excitable. It can start as a lecture which is immediately interrupted by violent disagreements and at times the participants go off at a tangent and forget what exactly they were talking about in the first place. An adda is the Bengali form of communication over cups of cha and plates of samosas and it is primarily loud and voluble talk and a wonderful way to waste time.
As long as you can amuse the audience you can get away with treason. What is not allowed is being boring. Reading the stories of Troilokyanath Mukhopadhyay you immediately realize that he was a master addabaaz who would never make his readers yawn. He was one of those rare raconteurs who could hold aloft the soap bubble of a crazy thought by sheer imagination and quick wit.
Troilokyanath Mukhopadhyay (1847-1919) led an interesting life and that is reflected in his fiction. He lost his parents when he was a boy and wandered across north India in search of work. He worked as a school teacher, joined the police, worked in the government, was involved in the promotion of Indian handicrafts and ended his career in the Indian Museum in Calcutta. So he saw first hand the condition of the poor especially in the villages where they were exploited by the government, the priesthood and the rich merchants. So in his writings there is often a strain of subtle satire about the antics of the rich and powerful. For instance in one ghost story the ghosts refuse to travel abroad because obeying a brahmin diktat, they fear they would lose their caste if they did so!
Troilok yanath was writing at a time when the art of writing fiction was still at an early stage and so his stories have a rather touching primitiveness to them. There is a mix of magical events, wild imagination and fabulous characters; ghosts, demons, cannibals and time travelling all thrown into the pot with abandon They have the flavour of the storytelling of the ancient kathakaars, those itinerant storytellers weaving fantastic tales to keep their audience entertained blended with a touch of adda. Reading these stories I kept thinking they would make great graphic novels because in that genre the weird and whacky has its own space.
As a matter of fact the adda appears often as the place where these stories are narrated like the adventures of Damrudhar. So ghosts appear often, so do evil sanyasis and ogres. People die and are revived and they travel to Ayodhya and Delhi by magic. For instance there is the twelve year old Birbala, a brave young girl who ventures out all alone to rescue a lost child and she lands in a place called Bogdad, the author’s version of Baghdad by any chance?
However after a while the magic wears rather thin because the stories are all in the same pattern and become predictable. Also even though these are tall tales that should appeal to children, I began to wonder if the stories were for adults or children as they are at time rather gory. Like the description of a Kali image with real human skulls hanging around the goddess’s neck and of a baby girl being buried alive that are for me, quite beyond the pale of stories for children. Also there are far too many men addicted to opium who are portrayed as amusing characters.
Sometimes the tale goes off at such an irrational tangent that you lose the thread of the narrative. To go on reading you have to keep reminding yourself that he was writing at a time when fiction writing was still being developed. Rabindranath Tagore writing about Troilokyanath’s stories described them as being set in adbhuta rasa but that weird and wild mood does begin to wear thin after a while.
What is amusing are his comments about society and the surreal, fantastical style of his storytelling that some call an early form of magic realism. The stories have the same feel as the old style fairy tales that we all grew up listening to, like ‘Thakurmar Jhuli’ (Grandmother’s Bag of Tales) or ‘Rakhosh Khokosh’ (Rakshashas and Demons) but with a modern twist, like the ghost who describes himself proudly as being, ‘courteous, civilized and modern’. The stories are full of a mad cap humour and colourful characters like a lady ghost with a pretty nose called Nakeshwari and a music loving weaver who has been banished from his village because of his awful voice and waits eagerly for an audience. But the stories are also disorganized, illogical and written to a formula.
Arnab Bhattacharya who writes in the introduction about discovering the writings of Troilokyanath as a boy does a commendable job in translating the stories. Reading the book I would often mentally translate a phrase into Bengali to get its real flavour. As much of the humour is to be found in these colloquial phrases, it must have been very hard to capture the mood in English. He has chosen a slightly archaic voice that also blends well with stories set in the past and written over a century ago and the illustrations by Subir Hati blend well with the stories.
Subhadra Sen Gupta writes mysteries, historical adventures, ghost stories and comic books for children.