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Boroline to Bantul the Great: How the bumper Puja issues of children’s magazines shaped Bengal’s literary taste

The pujo sankhya (puja issue) or puja barshiki (puja annual) forms part of the mental universe of every educated middle-class Bengali, especially those who call, or once called, Kolkata home.

Written by Samantak Das |
Updated: September 24, 2017 12:30:26 am
The Puja pages: Issues of the children’s magazines, Kishore Bharati (C) and Anandamela.

The first Bangla magazine to bring out a special issue on the occasion of Puja was Bharati, which published its special “puja number” in 1919, while Anandabazar Patrika brought out a Puja supplement in 1922. Since then, almost all Bengali magazines worth the name have brought out special Puja issues. They are usually much thicker than the regular magazine, contain anything between three to 10 times the number of pages and contain a smorgasbord of articles — usually a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, with liberal helpings of poetry, sometimes richly illustrated, and often containing what today are called graphic novels or graphic short stories.

If one bought Anandamela primarily for the latest Sunil Gangopadhyay (Kakababu for choice, but pretty much anything by the great man would do) one went to Shuktara mainly for the comics of the peerless Narayan Debnath, creator of the immortal Bantul the Great and Handa-Bhonda. There were other pleasures — Satyajit Ray’s Feluda or Professor Shonku; the short, and sometimes long, stories of Lila Majumdar, Premendra Mitra or Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay; the verses — sometimes doggerel, sometimes not — penned by some of Bengal’s finest wordsmiths, the superbly evocative pictures, and, of course, the advertisements for everything from Kwality ice cream (“If he doesn’t like milk, give him Kwality instead!” went the tagline) to “guaranteed whitening” detergents like Det (now no longer visible, alas) and Surf (now flourishing as high-tech and sexy). If “Shurobhito antiseptic cream, Boroline!” is a line practically every Bengali my age can hum with the right jingle-like lilt, it’s in part because of the illustrations showing glamorous Westernised PYTs using the white gooey stuff that is as much a fixture in every Bengali home as suitcases wrapped in old bedsheets on top of Godrej almirahs and a respectfully framed portrait of Rabindranath Tagore.

Like the suitcases, Gurudeb and Kwality ice cream, the pujo sankhya (“puja issue”) or puja barshiki (“puja annual”) forms part of the mental universe of every educated middle-class Bengali, especially those who call, or once called, Kolkata home.

Rather shamefully, I have to confess I have no idea who exactly thought up the idea of the puja barshiki, but I have no doubt this person, or persons, occupies as important a place in the social and intellectual history of Bengal and Bengalis as Nobin Chandra Das (legendary inventor of that other great staple of Bengali life, the rosogolla). For me, as for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of others, puja sankhyas and barshikis have been part of the very texture of Bengali life.

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One of my prized possessions, preserved entirely accidentally with far more precious old books and journals by my bibliophile maternal grandmother, is the puja barshiki Anandamela of 1976, with novels by Satyajit Ray (Shonkur Shonir Dosha), Shankar (Piklur Kolkata-Bhraman), Sunil Gangopadhyay (Holdey Barir Rahasya), Bimal Kar and others, including a long comic by Walt Disney called ‘Daini Paharer Dikey’ (‘Towards Witch Mountain’) with the English words in the speech bubbles replaced with Bangla.

Among all the froth, frippery and mirth, it comes as a bit of a shock to discover the black-and-white Government of India Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) advert on page 258 declaiming in large letters that the nation is moving “aaro srinkhalar pothey” (“on a path of greater discipline”), extolling virtues like punctuality and efficiency with calculated humourlessness — and then, of course, one realises that this is squarely in the middle of the Emergency, although nothing else in this 280-plus page magazine gives any hint of this dark period of our history.

There’s a book waiting to be written on how much or how little such historically significant events are represented in the popular publications of our times (did the Bangladesh War and its aftermath find as little expression as the Emergency in puja barshikis, or were things different, I wonder, but can find no answer).
As one grew up, one’s reading habits changed too, from Anandamela and Shuktara to Patrika and Desh, with an unacknowledged detour via Anandalok (the film and gossip magazine); and while some read puja barshikis of women-centered journals, others preferred The Statesman’s “Festival Number”.

An enduring memory is waiting for the puja barshikis to arrive and then fighting with sundry siblings and cousins to get one’s hands on the latest Kakababu or Bantul or whatever before anyone else. Another is passing post-Pujo melancholy middays with a declining sun in the sky, declining hopes of ever meeting that particular pretty neighbour again (this was before the age of mobile phones and WhatsApp), school or college still weeks from reopening — and can school or college ever mend the hurt in one’s heart? — with the only possibility of joy offered in the newsprint of these large, badly-bound volumes, in their tales of everything from adventure to cryptozoology, with romance, lust and bathos thrown in for good measure.

Samantak Das teaches literature in Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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