The Future in the Past: Can Bengali science fiction grow up?

As the cult of Professor Shonku readies for the big screen, the question to ask: can Bengali science fiction grow up?

Written by Sandip Roy | Updated: January 7, 2018 12:05:14 am

Bengali science fiction started out ambitiously, infused by the larger spirit of the Bengal Renaissance and its embrace of modernity. (Source: Thinkstock Images)

Gotokaal Habuder chhatey
UFO nemechhey maajh raatey
Oto raatey ki ba jotey
ET-der paatey othey
Mourala bhaja aaloo bhaatey.
(Last night around midnight/ on Habu’s roof an UFO alights/ At night so late/What’s on the ETs’ plate?/ Just boiled potato, rice and tiny fish fried)

It was perhaps inevitable that my journey to find the science fiction in the Bengali or the Bengali in science fiction would lead to extra-terrestrials eating fish and rice on a rooftop albeit in a limerick. The rooftop, even more than fish and rice, is key. In Kolkata, that’s where we escaped during power cuts at night, lying on a mat, staring up into the inky blackness of the sky. Without mobile phones to distract us, it was not difficult to imagine that somewhere in that universe of twinkling stars, someone was looking back at us.

Of course, the Bengali fascination with science fiction predates load shedding. 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. Jagadananda Roy published Shukra Bhraman in 1892, where apelike aliens roamed Uranus.

Yet, for too many, Bengali sci-fi seems to revolve around Trilokeshwar Shonku and his oddball inventions like the Annihillin vapourising pistol and the Omniscope. “When I read Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke, there was never a doubt the characters were foreign but any Bengali can relate to Shonku, the absent-minded scientist who doesn’t care much about money,” says Dip Ghosh, part of a group of crusaders behind the sci-fi/fantasy webzine Kalpabiswa (kalpabiswa.com). Shonku was the brainchild of Satyajit Ray. In 2018, Ray’s son Sandip will finally bring Shonku to the big screen with Dhritiman Chatterjee as the nutty professor. “It’s the brilliance of Ray that makes Shonku so popular,” says Ghosh. “But it also means sci-fi is stuck in the trope — young adult magazines, a half-mad scientist investigating some unusual event. Shonku is more science fantasy than science fiction.”

He is beloved, but Bengali science fiction also needs to escape the Shonku hangover. Kalpabiswa has had wide-ranging themes — Japanese sci-fi, HP Lovecraft, aliens. But it also wants to preserve a lost golden age of little sci-fi magazines with big dreams. “People forget the past,” says Ghosh’s friend and co-conspirator Supriyo Das. “And those magazines are not available digitally.” They track down pioneers like Adrish Bardhan, the godfather of Bengali sci-fi, who in 1962 coined the Bengali word for science fiction — kalpabigyan, a portmanteau word stapling together imagination and science. Bardhan created his own mad scientist Professor Nut-Boltu Chakra, started the first Bengali sci-fi magazine Ashchorjyo in 1963, did sci-fi radio plays and set up India’s first science fiction cine club with Ray as president and an annual fee of Rs 6. “He introduced the Bengali to world science fiction,” says Sandipan Ganguly, another member of the Kalpabiswa team. In 1971, Bardhan’s wife died leaving him with a small child. He would wake up every night at 2.30, the time his wife died. Unable to sleep, he’d translate Jules Verne. That was published in nine volumes. “I think his biggest impact was as a translator. His Jules Verne and Asimov translations are seminal,” says Ganguly.

Bardhan, in his mid-eighties, has lost both his memory and his hearing. But he gladly inaugurated Kalpabiswa. Ghosh remembers he kept repeating the same thing as if stuck in a groove — “You need some madness to do this. My biggest success is I inspired a few madcaps.”

One of those madcaps is Ranen Ghosh, still going strong. He co-edited Fantasy with Bardhan and is now a sort of Obi wan Kenobi to the Kalpabiswa crew. In an interview with them, he remembers how he would hop onto local trains and sell his magazines, compartment to compartment. His other magazine, Bismoy, lasted 20 issues but folded when his partner sold off all the equipment and disappeared.

Fantastic, 1977 (L), Aschorjo New Year Special, 1969 (C), Bismoy Science Fiction 1971.

Bengali science fiction started out ambitiously, infused by the larger spirit of the Bengal Renaissance and its embrace of modernity. The genre still remains largely a male domain, but social reformer Rokeya Hossain conjured up Sultana’s Dream in 1905, a feminist utopia named Ladyland 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 rule over their bodies in Amanushik Manush. But, somewhere, along the way, sci-fi got pigeonholed as pulp. Writing in Seminar, Abhijit Gupta says covers showing astronauts floating in a field of stars, “seemed dated even for 1970s. By that time science fiction in the West had moved well beyond astronauts and galaxies.” He writes that sci-fi itself, with its themes of “galactic empire building and extermination of non-human races”, seemed a misfit in a post-colonial world.

Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, post-doctoral researcher in science fiction at the University of Oslo, says what kept sci-fi going in the Anglo-American world was that “the genre matured and diversified as science grew, and the fact that a lot of these writers had proper scientific training.” Bengal, on the other hand, mired in Naxalite uprisings, became more insular as its Communist leaders banned English language education. Sci-fi did not fall behind, says Chattopadhyay. “It was non-existent in the public consciousness as anything but juvenile literature after that brief half a decade of the science fiction cine club.” Bangladesh, with its heavy emphasis on translation, has a far more cosmopolitan sci-fi scene and two brothers, Humayun Ahmed and Zafar Iqbal, both scientists by training, led the charge there. On this side of the border, Bardhan has said his magazine was greeted with enthusiasm but also snobbish scepticism. The Kalpabiswa team chuckles that they face the same condescension. “Oh, webzine? That means you all are Facebook writers?”

There was a brief moment of tantalising possibility when Ray was in touch with Arthur C Clarke and writing a screenplay about an alien who lands in a pond in Bengal and makes friends with a boy named Haba. It was unique because this was a friendly alien, not one who had come to conquer earth. The project came to naught, though scripts made the rounds of Hollywood. In 1982, when E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial was released, many, including Clarke, saw the striking parallels. “Don’t take it lying down,” Clarke advised Ray, but he shrugged it off.

Even today, that story prompts wistful smiles in Bengal. It fits neatly with Kolkata’s propensity for “what might have been” nostalgia. Can a city often more prone to looking back than into the future, ever become a launching pad for science fiction again? Hardly any images exist for a futuristic Kolkata other than Anish Deb’s 23 Hours 59 minutes, a death games story that predates Hunger Games.

But once the Bengali roamed the universe from an old-fashioned boarding house ‘mess’ on 72, Banamali Naskar Lane. Premendra Mitra’s Ghana-da sat there, cadging cigarettes and telling fabulous stories of travel to Mars, searching for black holes, and thwarting mad scientists trying to wreak havoc with genetically modified insects in 1945. “But Mitra was very precise about his science,” says Chattopadhyay. Generations of Bengalis learned about Sakhalin Island and the orang pedeck of Indonesia from Ghana-da. “Ghana-da is arguably the greatest character from Bangla science fiction even if they are tall tales,” says Chattopadhyay.

To forge new frontiers Bengali science fiction does not need to clone Premendra Mitra or Satyajit Ray. Instead, Kalpabiswa hopes that they can push it to mature beyond its pulp persona. “Sexual freedom, race, LGBT movement is coming into science fiction abroad,” says Dip Ghosh. “Why not here?” It’s time to grow up.

Sandip Roy is the author of Don’t Let Him Know.

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